Walk into any party in London these days and at some point someone is likely to come up to you and ask, in jest: “So, when was the last time you had a Cornish pasty?” Of course, you're expected to “get” the joke and join in the banter with a counter “pasty joke.”
Latest in series of mishaps
Believe it or not, a national newspaper has actually sent out an email to all Cabinet ministers asking them not only “when” but “where” they had “consumed a pasty” last time around and, “how often would you estimate you eat pasties?”
Overnight, a lowly snack has become the season's hottest symbol of Britain's deep-seated class divide. Caught on the wrong side of the fence, the ruling Tories have been scrambling to declare their love for Cornish pasty — insisting on recalling their fond memories (often wrongly, as we shall see soon) of when they last enjoyed a pasty. Hence the party joke.
Welcome to “Pastygate,” the latest in a series of self-inflicted mishaps the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government has had to endure in recent weeks. It all started when the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, one of the millionaires in (millionaire) Prime Minister David Cameron's super-rich cabinet slapped a 20 per cent VAT on Cornish pasty, a favourite snack of working classes, while cutting tax for top earners. It was akin to the Indian Finance Minister putting up tax on the humble samosa, or dhaba food, while giving a tax holiday for his industrialist friends.
Predictably, condemnation was swift. Once again, the Tories had betrayed their instinctive pro-rich bias and cynical indifference to plebeian concerns, critics said. Coming as it did on top of a government assault on welfare benefits and pensioners' tax credits , a whopping 20 per cent levy on the common man's staple takeaway was seen as the last straw. It was a confirmation that despite their claims to have changed and become more inclusive the Tories remained Tories — “too posh to pasty” and “out of touch” with the “ordinary folk.”
The Sun, with an eye on its plebeian readers with a taste for Cornish pasty, launched a characteristically loud “Who VAT All the Pies” campaign, branding Mr. Osborne a modern-day Marie Antoinette (“Can't afford pasties, have a pastry!”) and likening the “pasty tax” to Margaret Thatcher's infamous poll tax.
Angry pasty-lovers dubbed him “Georgie, pasty-snatcher,” a throwback to “Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher,” the epithet hurled at Ms Thatcher when she abolished free milk for schoolchildren in the 1970s.
The Chancellor dug himself deeper into the hole when he failed to remember the last time he had a Cornish pasty. Asked by Labour MP John Mann during a Parliamentary committee meeting: “When was the last time you bought a pasty in Greggs?” he replied with his irritating trademark sneer: “Look, I can't remember.”
“Well — that kind of sums it up,” retorted Mr Mann.
Mr. Cameron keen to demonstrate his own pasty credentials after that gaffe claimed how only a few weeks ago he had a “very good” pasty (“The choice was whether to have one of their small ones or large ones, and I have got a feeling I opted for the large one, and very good it was too,” he waxed lyrical) and then blundered into naming a shop that, it turned out, was closed five years ago!
Within hours, the “breaking news” on television channels was how the Prime Minister had been telling “porkies.” The Tories' very own The Daily Telegraph was sufficiently underwhelmed by Mr. Cameron's performance to note that his “claims to be a pasty lover” had “spectacularly backfired.”
Meanwhile, like a good Opposition politician, Labour's Ed Miliband and his shadow Chancellor Ed Balls promptly popped into the nearest bakery and had themselves photographed buying pasties.
Embarrassingly for the Tories, the “pastygate” broke even as they were still reeling from revelations that a senior party figure had been flogging access to Mr. Cameron and his cabinet ministers for a donation. Its treasurer Peter Cruddas was secretly filmed boasting to undercover reporters how he could arrange private meetings with Mr. Cameron if their client joined the “premier league” of donors who gave the party £250,000 a year. Despite his initial indignant denials, Mr. Cameron was eventually forced to admit that he had entertained a number of “significant” donors in his private Downing Street flat. Among them were bankers, hedge fund tycoons, brokers and rich industrialists some of whom may have benefited from government patronage in the past and reinforcing the perception of the Tories as a rich man's club.
According to a new poll, 65 per cent of Britons believe the Tories are more interested in the rich than in ordinary voters. Even someone like Charles Moore, the last of the surviving “hang ‘em, flog ‘em” hardcore Tories, couldn't resist a pop at Mr. Cameron's “cabinet of millionaires” pointing out that “voters wonder whether such people — especially if they are almost all men, of much the same age, who went to the same schools and universities — have much feeling for the difficulties of life.”
The past few weeks have been difficult for Mr. Cameron and his government; or, as The Times put it with a touch of understatement, it has not been their “finest hour.” For the first time, there is a serious question mark over the future of the “Cameron project” emboldening the Labour to claim that the coalition will not last its full term. But there is also a larger issue here: whatever happened to the idea of “Cool Britannia” so assiduously promoted by New Labour when all it can take is a row over a humble pie to ignite a class war?