At times, we could have been sitting in on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Money Box.
During the question-and-answer session, one man told David Cameron: “I’m 70. I haven’t touched my pension pot. I’ve been looking into an annuity. With the Budget changes, what benefits do you see from my pot?”
The Prime Minister hesitated – possibly because he feared a trap, having read the current issue of Saga Magazine, the promoter of Monday’s event, which sternly warns readers that “choosing the wrong financial adviser can cost you dearly” and to “shun the charlatans”.
He wisely replied, “I’m not a personal financial adviser,” before going on to promise that expert “face-to-face financial advice” would be provided under the Budget changes. To judge by the car park outside Peacehaven’s Meridian community centre, those in the same position as his questioner had not already decided to grab – or “draw down”, as the euphemism has it – the cash in full. There was scarcely a Lamborghini to be seen.
On the other hand, the pensioners in the audience were surprisingly youthful-looking, the sort who might well be inclined to “Enjoy It While You Can”. This may be a result of the bracing sea air on the East Sussex coast. Or it may be that they are all energetic participants in the “Southern Stomp” – the local line-dancing club.
But after Cameron had parodied the “incredibly condescending” criticism that “they’ll spend it all on a cruise, and then where will they be?”, one man even said that “spending money on Saga cruises would be a very good idea” (Cameron’s visit being product placement in Saga’s dreams – even though this questioner went on to worry that the cashed-in pension pots would instead “end up in the pockets of private nursing homes”).
To the man who pointedly asked about the Tories’ unfulfilled promise to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m, Cameron started his reply by saying: “I don’t want to give you a history lesson. I wouldn’t dare…”
This was odd, not because he naturally went on to do precisely that, recounting the saga – that word again – of George Osborne unveiling the pledge in opposition, and then Gordon Brown raising the threshold to £650,000 and then “as you will recall, we did not win an outright majority in that election” and then how the Liberal Democrats opposed it.
Rather it was odd because, although he was being courteous, it wasn’t really necessary, a bit like saying, “I don’t need to give you a history lesson because you’re so old you actually remember 2007!”
While this episode is painful for Labour, because Gordon Brown delayed the election as a result, Cameron was careful not to attack it, presumably in case any of the audience were supporters.
But despite the handicap of his party chairman’s witless and, dare one say, “incredibly condescending” ad on “beer and bingo… helping hard-working people do… the things they enjoy”, he needn’t have worried. One woman announced challengingly: “All I want to say is thank you. I’ve been holding on to my pension and I’ve been asking for these changes.” While another pensioner described the Budget as “almost perfect”, merely seeking reassurance that “George” had something left in his locker for next year.
After all, Peacehaven, founded during the First World War to provide a refuge for troops returning from the trenches, is the only place in Britain to be named as a result of a competition in the Daily Express.