Out of touch. Out of control: The Tories in turmoil
The Conservatives' smooth PR mask slipped as scandal and silliness reigned
"There are many laws that help us to make sense of the world," George Osborne wrote in the Financial Times last week. "The laws of physics, the law of averages."
This weekend, the Chancellor may be searching for a name for a third law to try to make sense of the extraordinary aftermath of his Budget which has left a Prime Minister humiliated over dodgy dinners and Cornish pasties, and left a woman hospitalised for burns, apparently after following the advice of a cabinet minister.
The law of jerry cans, perhaps?
This has been one of the most bizarre weeks that British politics has seen.
Three days of bad, post-Budget headlines have left the Tories struggling to defend a tax raid on pensioners – their core supporters. Worse is to come. The Sunday Times has footage showing co-treasurer Peter Cruddas telling reporters they can buy private suppers with Cameron and Osborne, and some influence over party policy, for £250,000, the "Premier League" of donors. At 12.32am Cruddas resigns, expressing regret at his bluster. No 10 refuses to publish details of the dinners, insisting they are private.
Elsewhere, The Independent on Sunday reveals a secret plot by the Government to build a third runway at Heathrow. A third front-page exclusive – briefed by No 10 in the hope of turning attention from the Budget backlash to Labour's links with the unions – in the Mail on Sunday says that soldiers are on standby to drive petrol tankers during a threatened strike by Unite. Union officials are baffled as they had not yet announced a strike date.
Cameron starts each day at 5.45am, reading newspapers and documents to be the best briefed person in any room. But this morning he could be forgiven for wanting to remain in the dark. The secret dinners story is running big. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, a privately educated millionaire, goes on the Today programme to dismiss the furore as "nonsense".
Within hours, No 10 is forced into a U-turn: it publishes a list of Cameron's dinners with donors. Rupert Murdoch tweets: "Great Sunday Times scoop. What was Cameron thinking? No one, rightly or wrongly, will believe his story." Meanwhile Unite fuel tanker drivers vote for strike action, but still don't set a date.
A poll in The Independent shows that two-thirds of people believe the Tories are the party of the rich. The Express and Mail warn that "90 per cent of garages will shut" with Britain "held to ransom by 1,000 tanker drivers". Downing Street urges drivers to take sensible precautions.
The Chancellor appears before the Treasury Select Committee. His bizarre proposals to slap 20 per cent VAT on takeaway food served above ambient temperature dominate. The idea raises the prospect of someone at the back of the queue avoiding VAT because a tray of pasties has cooled by the time they are served. Asked when he last bought a pasty in Greggs, Osborne replies, "I can't remember."
New figures show the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2011. On any normal day, this – coupled with warnings of a double-dip recession – would dominate. But this is not any normal day. "Wednesday felt like the day when it all went weirdly out of control," says a No 10 insider.
As spin-doctors try to agree a line on what motorists should do, they see Maude on television telling people the strike would put "lives are at risk". Speaking on the steps of the Cabinet Office, he adds: "The greater the extent to which people have fuel in their vehicles, with maybe a little bit in the garage as well, in a jerry can, the longer we will be able to keep things going."
Around the corner, outside the Treasury, a model from The Sun, dressed as Marie Antoinette, hands out pasties and sausage rolls to office workers.
Cameron tries to rise above the silliness with a press conference about the Olympics, but is forced into a bakery confessional: "I am a pasty-eater myself. I think the last one I bought was from the West Cornwall Pasty Company. I seem to remember I was in Leeds station ... I have a feeling I opted for the large one and very good it was, too."
Whoops. The West Cornwall outlet in Leeds shut in 2007. The last pasty shop at Leeds station closed days after the Budget. And it later emerges that instead of Leeds, the PM might have been thinking of Liverpool. Someone in the Labour camp has a bright idea, and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves are dispatched to buy eight sausage rolls in a Greggs in Redditch, declaring the Chancellor "out of touch".
There are few ways the day could get odder. But the Prime Minister playing badminton – not a sport of the masses – in the Downing Street garden, in front of TV cameras, does the trick.
Long after the last pasty has cooled and the shuttlecocks are packed away, the Roads minister, Mike Penning, tells Newsnight that Maude was wrong: "He didn't understand the size of a jerry can. He has apologised."
A report in The Times that Andrew Mitchell, the millionaire International Development Secretary, was once an investor in a firm that avoided stamp duty has the potential to damage the Tory brand further. Yet it is little noticed as the fuel queues grow.
Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, has fresh advice: "The average tank is a third full, and I think if we can increase the average maybe to two-thirds..." Demand for petrol rises 172 per cent, diesel by 77 per cent. Dorset police shut petrol stations. A man in Ilkley, Yorkshire, is seen snatching a pump from a female driver.
The pasty war is not over either. The Sun urges its army of readers to go into a Morrisons supermarket, buy a sausage roll "and eat it at exactly 1pm to show just what you think of the tax".
David Davis, a rival to Cameron for the Tory leadership, criticises the Cabinet of millionaires: "They [the public] look at the front bench and they see them all well dressed, well turned out, well fed, and perhaps feel they're in a different world."
Salvation, of sorts, arrives in the form of George Galloway's shock victory in the Bradford West by-election. But the bad news for Miliband came too late for most newspapers, which are still gripped by the coalition's woes.
Shortly after 9.30am, the BBC reports that a 46-year-old woman, Diane Hill, has suffered 40 degree burns decanting petrol in her kitchen while cooking dinner. Within minutes, Labour MPs tweet that Maude must resign. Cameron says: "This was absolutely a desperate incident and a terrible thing that has happened to this woman."
Within an hour, Unite announces the tanker drivers will not hold a strike over Easter after all, leaving the distinct impression that the week's events have been a little unnecessary. In an attempt to restock supplies, restrictions on fuel tanker drivers' hours are temporarily relaxed.
Charles Moore, the Telegraph columnist, reports that the petrol panic was a Tory confection to expose Labour for being in hock to the unions – a "Thatcher moment". The problem is every driver in the land now feels like a pawn in a great political game.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, attacks the Government's efforts to "politically charge" the dispute. The story by now has gone international. Libération in France runs an article on how for three days the UK has "looked like a beleaguered country". Britain has been "plonger dans le chaos" over the Budget, petrol and pasties.
When a nation of patisseries reports Britain's global standing being threatened by a tax on "pâtés en croute", every law of political sanity have surely been broken.
What the papers say: 'A pie-eating contest would perhaps be in order...'
As I watched the Budget and saw Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander [I] did get that "What do they know about anything?" feeling which, polls suggest, is doing the coalition harm.
Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph
The Chancellor and his rich cabinet colleagues cannot begin to understand what it's like to be so hard-up that a sharp rise in the price of a pasty will hurt.
The Sun editorial
Cameron has little time to put things right – once the public has made up its mind, no force on earth can change it. The proxies and cronies must go.
Peter Oborne, Daily Telegraph
The tax has ignited a political firestorm... leading the posh British prime minister, David Cameron, to claim — not all that convincingly — that he, truly, is an aficionado of the pasty (which rhymes with nasty).
Landon Thomas Jnr, New York Times
A pie-eating contest between Cameron and Miliband would perhaps be in order. We cannot wait.
Tina Kaiser, Die Welt
It is time Mr Cameron and his Chancellor realised how disconnected they appear from the people they purport to rule, and whose votes they seek.
Simon Heffer, Daily Mail
Crumbs – a quiz! Jerry Can Manor Pasty Person?
Fuel strikes and VAT hikes have exposed the great divisions in Britain today. Do you prefer bankers or bakers? Do you dine in Downing Street or grab a pie on the go? Take Matt Chorley's quiz to see whether you are too posh for pastry.*
(*Excludes beef Wellington)
What is an oggie?
A A delicious snack, counts as one of your five a day
B A beastly schoolmaster
You pop to the garage. Why?
A To buy de-icer, charcoal and a wind-up torch
B To check the chauffeur has polished the Bentley
How to pronounce "pasty"?
When do you have tea?
A When you get round to cooking after work
B When Carson brings a tray of Earl Grey to the drawing room
How many pasties laid end to end stretch from Leeds station to Downing Street?
B Now, yes, Leeds, I went there once. Got a castle?
What do you expect from a dinner guest?
A A bottle of Kumala red, and some scandalous gossip
B A cheque for £250,000 and some policy ideas
Where do you crimp?
A On the top
B At a card table
Greggs has a special offer on. Do you?
A Buy six sausage rolls
B Book a table for two, by the window
Complete this West Country schoolboy's song: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John/ate a pasty five feet long/Bit it once, Bit it twice/Oh my Lord, it's...?
A Full of mice
B A lot of pastry and then mostly potato on the inside
Of all the characters in The Good Life, who can expect to be told off by Margot?
A Is it Homer?
B Jerry can
How did you do?
Mostly As – You're a pasty-eating man (or woman) of the people
Mostly Bs – You wouldn't go near a pasty without a knife and fork
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