Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, has come under fire from all parties after he was accused of running a “patronising” advert suggesting that working people relax by drinking beer and playing bingo.
Although David Cameron’s official spokesman insisted that the Prime Minister had “full confidence” in Mr Shapps, there was growing speculation in Tory circles that he will be moved to another job in a Cabinet reshuffle after the May European and local elections and will not head his party’s campaign at next year’s general election.
“This gaffe shows he is not a wartime chairman,” one senior Tory said. That view is said to be shared by Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist brought in to oversee the Tories’ election effort.
In public, the Tories insisted they were “relaxed” about the ad, which Mr Shapps tweeted after Wednesday’s Budget halved bingo tax and cut the price of beer by 1p a pint. It said the two measures were “to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”.
But in private, senior Tories were furious that the row distracted attention from favourable headlines about Mr Osborne’s radical reforms to pensions and savings, and risked reinforcing criticism that the Chancellor and Prime Minister are “out of touch” with ordinary people.
Thousands of people mocked the Shapps advert on Twitter. Spoofs featured whippets and other class-based jokes, recalling Mr Cameron’s Eton education and membership of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.
Mr Osborne criticised the BBC for covering the controversy, claiming it had been “whipped up by a Labour Party that didn’t have anything else to say about the economy”. The Chancellor said: “We are communicating what’s in the Budget. The more people hear about the Budget the more confident people can be that they are on the right track.”
The advert ended the Coalition parties’ show of unity over the Budget as the Liberal Democrats distanced themselves from it. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said the poster was “a bit silly”. Asked on his weekly radio phone-in on LBC 97.3 if it would be right to describe it as a “Budget for plebs”, he told a listener: “It certainly wouldn’t be.”
Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, said the use of the word “they” to describe working people showed the Tories were cut off from the real world.
He said Mr Osborne must be “frustrated that his head of campaigns puts out an advert patronising working people by saying they’ll be happy with a bingo tax and a beer tax. What nonsense that is.”