Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where's the Beef?

So the "Pasty Tax" U-Turn comes (or as I call it, the Sausage Roll). Rather too late to help the Tories through their little local election difficulties.

Paul Goodman has written a powerful piece giving a number of excellent reasons why the government shouldn't be u-turning - it would have raised much-needed revenue that the government will now have to find elsewhere, it makes ministers look weak, it makes loyal backbenchers (who've already voted it through) look ridiculous.

It was, however, inevitable that the government would have to buckle on this. It was an ill-considered policy, apparently foisted on the coalition by the Civil Service while they were asleep at the till (or in Osborne's case, on holiday). How do you judge whether something is "warm" or not without taking the temperature of every item? What is "room temperature" defined as? How many degrees from that temperature is an acceptable margin of error? Those conditions would have been difficult to comply with, but more importantly, they would have been impossible to enforce. (I'm not sure what the Civil Service was thinking of - perhaps issuing thermometers to HMRC inspectors?)

Nigel Lawson was wise enough to sidestep this quagmire when he first introduced VAT on hot food, writing:
"It does not apply to food and drink which has cooled to room temperature by the time it is sold, or to things like pies and pastries which are sold warm because they happen to be freshly baked, and not to enable them to be consumed while they are still hot."
Liberal Democrats are claiming victory on this, but I am rather suspicious. They have been in a bit of a muddle on this from start to finish - local candidates claiming the pasty tax was a Tory initiative (and that it would hurt "the Cornish pasty industry" - in spite of all the evidence that the only disadvantaged business would have been the Newcastle-based Greggs) when it was Lib Dem MPs who voted for it and Sarah Teather being the first politician to come out and justify the tax increase on Question Time.

In fact Teather's defence of the change was so thorough and heartfelt I wondered at the time whether this might be a Lib Dem initiative - after all it has all the hallmarks of a Lib Dem policy, a tinkering tax hike in the name of their warped sense of 'fairness'. On last Friday's edition of the Daily Politics, Toby Young gave some credence to this with a more developed theory of his own:
"I blame the Lib Dems. My theory is, we saw the Damian McBride blog in which he said the Treasury constantly produced this list, this wish list, of various taxes which he and Gordon Brown used to bat away. But I think what happened was, George Osborne announced quite late in the day that he wanted to cut the top rate of tax, so Danny Alexander and his team huddled with some Treasury officials, they said "well what can we ask for in return?" and the Treasury officials said "funny you should ask. We've got this list..." And then that's what the Lib Dems demanded as the price of accepting the tax cut."
It rings true to my ears...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stranger Things

For a long time now I have struggled in any kind of public situation. I feel especially uncomfortable in the presence of anyone I don't already know, usually regarding them with a degree of suspicion that pervades far beyond those initial encounters. This is a profound issue which has created all sorts of problems that have seriously hindered my life since childhood. On the other hand, one of my friends, when I put this to him, retorted (perhaps as a kindness) that avoiding strangers is "just common sense" and "what British people do". Still, I can't help but feel that I've missed out on a lot because of it.

Last week I remembered something interesting, which makes me wonder if this is where it comes from. It was something that happened to me when I was five years old, in my first year at primary school, and the fact that I still remember it (and particularly the way I remember it) suggests it was quite a formative experience in my development.

It was the lesson about paedophiles.

Not that the teacher (who I otherwise remember as being especially lovely) ever explained what a paedophile is, what he does, what he wants, nor even used the word 'paedophile' - all quite understandably - it is only in retrospect that I understand what this lesson was really about. It was explained to us by the teacher, with a series of illustrations to guide. The illustrations (now forgive me - I was five years old and have only the vaguest memory of most of this) depict a man driving up to a child and offering the child some sweets.

The word used?


We were told again and again, "don't take sweets from strangers!" That line, along with "never talk to a stranger!" were repeated to us ad nauseam so our little five year old minds took the message to heart - I don't remember if we were told why we shouldn't do these things, those obviously weren't the key messages. Just avoid the horrible strangers. Got it.

There was something else about the day of this lesson, the first lesson of the day indeed, that was also notably memorable. This was the day that a new girl started in our class - Elaine, I think her name was. As I recall she was understandably a little meek as the teacher introduced her at the start of the day. I can only imagine it got worse, about midway through the "strangers" lesson.

"Never talk to a stranger!" the teacher repeated, before mindlessly running straight into the next sentence: "Now, when I met Elaine this morning, she was a stranger..."

If there was subsequently a qualification given to this remark, I just don't remember it sadly. This is the version that is forever etched on my memory, and the definition of a 'stranger' was clear in my mind: it could be anyone.

And hence I never talk to strangers.

But I do take sweets from men who drive their cars up to me. It's a strange world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mid-Term Blues: Ignore Them At Your Peril

Given Bruce Anderson's apparent proximity to Downing Street, this is an extremely depressing piece. If Labour had stuck their heads in the sand about dreadful council results like this, complacently accepting their losses as "mid-term blues" rather than evidence of a wider problem, they wouldn't have adjusted their activities in order to win their second or third terms, and they wouldn't have held the Conservative Party back from winning a majority in 2010.

The problems are threefold:
1) An unappealing and indistinct policy platform
2) Poor presentation by unpopular ministers
3) A dismally ineffective electoral machine

The fact is that when someone asks a canvasser "why should I vote Conservative", they are returned a blank expression. I couldn't think of a compelling reason (other than the excellent work of the sitting councillor, which sadly wasn't enough). There seems to have been a decision at the top that the Conservative Party should stand for nothing in particular, but to ordinary voters that has translated into "the Tories stand for no one, and certainly not us".

And the latter part of that is amplified when an extremely well-off Chancellor stands up at the despatch box, freshly returned from his American holiday, to announce that he's giving the highest earners an apparent tax break (although not by enough to return the rate to what it was two years ago and thereby silence his critics, thereby rendering the act both costly and pointless) while slapping VAT on the cheapest hot food on the high street (in the middle of the longest winter of recent memory). The troubles caused by Jeremy Hunt and the Home Office over the past couple of weeks wither in comparison to those caused by the Treasury.

Meanwhile, the party organisation is a basket case, particularly in the cities (those same cities that last week rejected Cameron's proposal of elected mayors), which are mostly comprised of constituencies without Conservative MPs, where the highly motivated union troopers outnumber the humble Tory leafletter by 14-1.
It occurred to me during the run-up to the last election that if the Tories can't run a party operation competently, how on earth can we expect them to run a government? Sadly it seems that fear was a justified one.