D J Taylor: Is this woman the new Edwina Currie?

Of the 2010 intake of new MPs, Elizabeth Truss stands out. It's all a question of PR...as the middle classes, Tesco and the professions will tell you

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The Independent Online

If, as somebody once maintained, British society may usefully be compared to a sandwich whose outer layers, made up of the disproportionately wealthy and the disproportionately poor, enclose a compacted middle class, then the expansion of the filling is one of the great demographic success stories of the past century and a half.

From a comparatively modest starting point – the "middle classes" as we know them are essentially a Victorian creation – the bourgeoisie has in the past 30 or 40 years carried all before it. Three-quarters of the newspapers sold in the UK are written to reflect its opinions. The country's educational system is expressly designed to appease it. Politicians fall over themselves to conciliate its prejudices.

Or rather, most of them do. It is a sign, perhaps, of how warped the stanchions of domestic politics have become in the past 18 months that David Cameron should be accused of neglecting middle-class interests, and of failing to understand, as one commentator recently put it, "how the middle classes work". Mr Cameron, the argument runs, is a toff. His natural stance is that of the old-style patrician: indulgent of the stratospherically well-off, sympathetic to the chronically ground down, uncertain as to how to deal with the very large number of people somewhere in between.

If this is really Mr Cameron's position – and most of the evidence counsels caution – then it constitutes a rather significant historical throwback. The great alliance of that benighted pre-bourgeois period of British history was not between aspiring middle-class splinter groups but between "gentleman" and plebeian. One can see this in early-Victorian novels, in which well-bred club-loungers and their valets conspire against counter-jumping shopkeepers. Its lingering traces can be inspected in the military novels of Evelyn Waugh and Simon Raven, which marshal an array of dandified exquisites and their rough-hewn NCOs against what one Raven character calls "snooping middle-class majors".

To go back to Mr Cameron's (supposed) inability to understand the fixations of a reader of the Daily Mail, all this is rather refreshing. The politicians of the past 30 years have spent far too much of their time cosying up to the middle classes, usually with disastrous results. See, for example, Tony Blair, who in 1997 was offered a brief window of opportunity in which to pursue a genuinely radical agenda, only to take fright and sink back into the arms of The Daily Telegraph. Besides, politicians are not there to conciliate interest groups. They are there to govern. A prime minister who is not terribly concerned how his policies might play in Croydon can only be a force for good.


As a former PR man myself, I always keep an eye out for creditable performances by modern ornaments of the trade. A top-notch example came earlier this week in the controversy surrounding the launch of a Tesco Express in the Suffolk coastal town of Southwold. On the day the branch opened its doors it was greeted by a sullen crowd of residents and shop-keepers who distributed leaflets claiming that the company had not listened to requests to take measures to protect independent stores and were selling certain products – notably newspapers and magazines – which they had promised not to stock. The problem, one campaigner alleged, "is we don't seem to get a straight answer from Tesco about what they intend to do".

And how did Tesco respond to this chorus of disapproval? According to their spokesperson, Carol Leslie, whose tenacity in support of her employer's interests can only be applauded, "The feedback from customers has been tremendous and we are pleased that so many local people have supported us on opening day." With the greatest respect to Ms Leslie, the feedback has not been tremendous and the town is seething with ill will. There is a kind of surrealism about all this that lifts it far beyond the orbit of commerce. No doubt a spring flood coursing along Southwold High Street will have Tesco cheerfully noting a welcome chance to reappraise their stock dispositions.


Still with the middle classes – up to a point – it was instructive to watch the spectacle of another fine old bourgeois institution biting the dust. I refer, of course, to the medical profession, whose members found themselves almost universally condemned for operating a "one-strike" policy of excluding undesirable patients from their lists. The fact that British GPs earn more than any other doctors in Europe was made much of.

The old-style professions, formerly a kind of holy grail for the upwardly mobile, have been having a poor time of it lately. Lawyers are routinely dismissed as ambulance-chasing fat cats. The church, naturally, was written off decades ago. Even the armed forces, though praised for the bravery of their troops, are regularly criticised for their logistical failings and the inefficiency of their procurement schemes. Experts sometimes attribute these complaints to a lack of "deference". It could be, though, that they have a more prosaic explanation, and proceed simply from an awareness that here is yet another group of public servants who seem keener on serving their own interests than the public's.


Trying to select the pushiest fresher from the 2010 parliamentary intake, whose members are now celebrating their first 18 months in the Commons, I decided that it could only be Elizabeth Truss, the Conservative MP for South-West Norfolk. For Ms Truss is practically ubiquitous.

Only a few days ago she occupied the entire front page of my local paper with some remarks on the evils of people-trafficking. Come Friday there she was again, hand proudly clenched on the handle of a monster basket of freshly baked bread, alongside the beaming Minister for Tourism, John Penrose. According to the report, Mr Penrose was apparently "among hundreds of MPs, peers and parliament staff won over by Norfolk's food and drink at a special event at the House of Commons" organised by....

Ms Truss's enthusiasm is commendable, and I'm sure she is as disinterested as she is indefatigable. But as the example of certain high-profile Tory ladies from olden times reminds us (one thinks of Edwina Currie, recently treading the boards on Strictly Come Dancing), there is such a thing as overdoing it.