Christina Patterson: Pasties were hot, now they're not. Time for a rethink on Plan A too


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The Independent Online

It wasn't quite a banana skin, but it was as near as you could get. It was so near to a banana skin, in fact, that it's quite hard to believe that Mazher Mahmood hadn't swapped his "fake sheikh" robes for a dull, grey suit. It's hard to believe that he, or perhaps a young colleague also posing as a very helpful civil servant, hadn't sidled up to the minister, at a pre-Budget meeting at the Treasury, and whispered a phrase that included the words "ambient air temperature" and "tax".

When George Osborne announced, in March, in a voice that sounded as if he was explaining something complicated to very small children, that he was going to "address borderline anomalies" in tax on "hot takeaway products", he probably thought that this was a sensible way to raise some cash. He probably didn't think that the next day's newspapers would ignore most of the details in a long and boring Budget, and fill their pages with giant pasties.

He certainly didn't realise, when a Labour MP asked him when he'd last bought a pasty from Greggs, and he said he couldn't remember, that this would be a very bad thing. If he'd thought about it, he might have said that he hadn't actually been to Greggs, because Tory chancellors of the exchequer who were also sons of baronets tended not to go to Greggs, but that there were some very nice private members' clubs where you could, for example, get a good steak pie. If he had said this, he would at least have acknowledged that pastry was a central part of British life, and one that people of all backgrounds could enjoy in different ways, but in different ways that would raise a bit of tax.

Unfortunately, he answered the question as if pastry was something which, in the scheme of things, and particularly in the scheme of more than a trillion pound debt, was a little bit trivial.

His boss, who has worked in PR, didn't. His boss, who certainly looks as if he enjoys a good steak pie in a private members' club, could even remember eating a Cornish pasty. His memory, it's true, was a bit fuzzy, since the pasty shop he said he'd bought it from didn't seem to exist. But he did understand that it was important, if you were from a privileged background, to pretend that you sometimes did the same things as people who weren't.

That, for example, is why you might have to be the only person wearing a "lounge suit" at a wedding where everyone else was in morning dress, because you wouldn't want to be photographed in top hat and tails.

But even his boss probably didn't think that that tiny clause about "hot takeaway products" would unleash what you might call a Cornish Spring. It started, in Birmingham, with British Baker. It soon spread to the National Association of Master Bakers, and then the Cornish Pasty Association, and then The Sun. On 26 April, the chief executive of Greggs presented a petition to Downing Street.

"We come here today," he told the crowds outside, "with peaceful intentions, but resolute determination to fight to the bitter end." What "ordinary hard-working people" needed, he said, was "higher aspiration", not "higher prices".

On Monday, they won. On Monday, the Chancellor wrote a letter to the Treasury select committee, saying that what was hot was now not.

"What we've done," said the Treasury minister, looking very fed up, "is listen to representations we've received". They had, he said, had "a consultation process". There would, he said, be no VAT to pay on pasties, as long as they were not "kept warm".

The bakers are happy. Greggs' shareholders are happy. The "ordinary hard-working" people who manage to nip to Greggs in their very short lunch break are happy. And Labour MPs are very, very happy. The change in policy, said the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, was a "total and utter shambles".

In this, it was very much like last week's employment reform plan, which the shadow business secretary described as a "complete and utter shambles".

It was also like the Budget, which Ed Miliband, who went to Greggs to buy sausage rolls with Ed Balls, called as an "omnishambles". When politicians find a word they like, they tend to use it quite a lot. So is it? Is it a complete, and total, and utter, shambles? Well, on its own it probably isn't. On its own, it was a muddle about hot food that a government wanted to make into a different muddle, but when it proved too much of a hot potato (or even a lukewarm pasty) decided to change it back. We're all allowed, at least sometimes, to change our minds.

But the pasty U-turn isn't on its own. The pasty U-turn was announced at the same time as a U-turn about VAT on "static caravans", and followed a U-turn about VAT on restoration work on churches. That's three U-turns from one Budget, and when the U-turn on caps on tax relief for charities is announced in the autumn, as MPs think it will, that will be four. And these U-turns follow the one on child benefit, and the one on jump jets, and the one about free school milk, and the one about free books in schools, and the one about school sports. They follow the one about anonymity for rape suspects, and the one about automatic sentences for carrying a knife, and the one about coastguards, and the one about forests, and were announced at the same time as the one about secret courts.

That's quite a lot of U-turns from a government that's only been in power for two years. It's also a lot of U-turns from a government whose members gave the impression that they were the grown-ups who were going to clear up the mess the children had left behind.

Governments like to look busy. If they can't spend money, they tinker. This government has tinkered more than most, but it seems to have decided to do thinking after, and tinkering first. It seems to be remarkably relaxed about its tinkering, and remarkably relaxed about its U-turns. It doesn't seem to think that any of it is all that important. It doesn't, in fact, seem to care about anything very much, except a big cost-cutting programme it calls a "plan". What it cares about is that this plan will do what it said it would do, which is work.

Unfortunately, it looks as though it won't. Unfortunately, it looks as though cutting costs just creates more costs and doesn't create the thing a shrinking economy needs, which is growth. Nobody seems to know what will. Ed Miliband says he does, but saying "jobs and growth" isn't the same as creating them. George Osborne said he did, but a double-dip recession probably isn't the best way to persuade people that your plan will work. If little things aren't working, it may not matter all that much, but if something big isn't working, you should probably try something else. You could call your new policy Plan B. You could call it a U-turn.

You could even, if necessary, but we won't tell anyone, call it humble (steak or sausage, hot or cold) pie.