John Harris

Journalist & Author

The Tories are no closer to shaking the taint of privilege issue | John Harris

The Cruddas fiasco, the budget, and even alcohol pricing show how very hollow are their claims of shared sacrifice

Peter Cruddas’s voice, brazenly offering two Sunday Times journalists “awesome” access in return for big political donations, is a reminder of a part of the Tory tribe who have lately been kept downstairs. It’s all estuary vowels and let’s-not-mess-about brashness – “Hundred grand isn’t premier league … 250 grand is premier league”. He has the kind of backstory that most Conservatives would kill for: a council estate childhood, no formal qualifications and a fortune made via financial spread-betting, a trade given a huge boost by the big bang of 1986. He and David Cameron, it’s fair to say, are from completely different worlds.

Unfortunately, in the face of a story as jaw-dropping as this one, the class nuances of recent Conservative history count for nothing. Two stories have come to the foreground: first, a revived argument about party funding which may well flare into life before once again reaching stalemate. Second, questions bound up with wealth, privilege and a disquiet about Cameron and George Osborne have been building for months, were heightened by the budget and now threaten to turn critical.

One phrase in particular has become a cliche at speed – “retoxification of the Tory brand” – bemoaned even by a former Cameron speechwriter. This is not in terms of the “nasty party” but something the government may not be able to shake off: a deep identification with moneyed arrogance, made worse by all those claims of shared sacrifice being contradicted by just about everything they do. In the public mind the dots implied by the Cruddas story will surely be joined in an instant: “If you are unhappy about something … we’ll listen to you, and we’ll put it into the policy committee at No 10,” he said, which conjures up the image of disaffected 50p payers having a few quiet words and coming away happy.

Though the darker side of political donations eventually hit them (and with good reason), New Labour just about got away with the comparable Bernie Ecclestone affair for two reasons: Tony Blair’s cynical brilliance and the fact that, in 1997, they were still managing to affect being modestly social-democratic. This fiasco fits so snugly into recent political events that it surely represents the perfect Conservative nightmare.

Five days after Osborne delivered the most butterfingered budget in living memory, it’s worth reflecting on its ongoing aftershocks, and how neatly they fuse with the Cruddas affair. The questionable idea that the rich would somehow end up paying five times as much tax as they did pre-budget has vanished. Instead, the cut in the top rate is the prism through which every controversial aspect of the budget is now seen, from the ubiquitous granny tax, through the prospect of an extra 1.3 million paying the 40p rate, to Labour’s under-reported claim that £500m has been taken out of the NHS. Note also the unsolved question of which senior Tory politicians stand to gain from the end of 50p, talked up most frantically by those two renowned wagers of the class war, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

Since late last week, more of the budget’s failings have come to light, many of them as much cultural as economic. Wiping £30m off the share price of Greggs bakers via the loading of VAT on to hot pies and pasties was not just an attack on a successful and expanding British company, but a clear indication that the government knows nothing of either Greggs’ place on the high street, or its place in millions of lunch breaks. Over the weekend, coverage was also given to a closed loophole that puts VAT on static caravans: the industry concerned employs 6,000 people in the blighted city of Hull, and the change threatens 1,500 jobs. What would Cameron and Osborne know about that?

Tory strategists must be aware that the privilege issue is tainting far too much of their agenda. Minimum alcohol pricing has always struck me as a pretty sensible response to Britain’s problem drinking, backed up by research and legitimised when a trail was blazed by Alex Salmond’s government in Edinburgh. Now, though, the context has changed: the abiding impression is of people acquainted with Chateau Lafite jacking up the price of a twice-weekly bottle of Blossom Hill. Mounting outrage about fuel prices will fit the same template: the struggling haulier or cash-strapped, car-dependent family wondering whether members of the Chelsea tractor set understand their pain. No one seemed to notice the dreadful speech Cameron gave in Scotland last week, but I can do without the prime minister claiming that the welfare system amounts to a “woeful, pitiful, factory of hopelessness” .

Ed Miliband is managing to play the class card via a mixture of indignation and mockery, though Labour remains too trapped in the shadows of its time in office to benefit from Tory problems. It’s more interesting to look at how things are playing inside the Conservative family. Keep your eyes on the self-made David Davis, whose recent thoughts about “crony capitalism” have the ring of prescience. Remember that capable Tory troublemaker Tim Montgomerie has warned that Cameron and Osborne need “a blood-on-the-carpet moment that demonstrates they are on the side of working families”. There’s certainly been a spillage, but it pushes the Tories further away from the “strivers” Montgomerie sees as crucial to any outright win in 2015.

Note also the words of backbencher Nadine Dorries, whose Liverpudlian dad was a bus driver: “The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care, either.” A saga is being played out, bound up with the enduring qualities of the English ruling class, and a mixture of gentry and parvenus (and, in Osborne’s case, people stuck somewhere in between) who are failing power’s most basic tests.

It has all reminded me of the words of brilliant Old Etonian George Orwell, in 1941: “It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.”

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