WHAT is it about parliamentarians and their chuck? For ordinary people food is a source of sustenance and pleasure (occasionally of pain). But for the ambitious politico every morsel is bait, luring them into a gin-trap which is primed to snap shut and neuter their careers.
Whether it’s a self-generated photo opportunity – think John Selwyn Gummer force-feeding his daughter beefburgers at the height of the mad cow disease crisis; or a cynical set-up – think Gordon Brown and the thorny Mumsnet biscuit dilemma – food is fraught with political danger.
Having recently been pictured chomping hot dogs with new BFF Barack Obama, you might have thought David Cameron had a better grasp than most of the power of food as propaganda, that he would have seen it coming. After slapping a tax on hot snacks such as might be procured at a Gregg’s emporium, after all, it was only a matter of time before the Old Etonian and his pals were asked about their own culinary preferences. But no, Cameron allowed himself to be ambushed, waxing lyrical about the tasty pasty he had tucked into just last year in the West Cornwall Pasty Company at Leeds station. It wasn’t the fact he picked the most upmarket of pasty shops that did for him, it wasn’t even the fact the shop in question had shut down five years ago. It was the fact that for all his self-conscious hobnobbing with the man in the street, the general public believe he is about as likely to pop into a fast-food shop for a meat and pastry treat as Marvin from the BBC reality show The Scheme is to have dinner at The Ivy.
When cornered in this way, of course, there is no right answer. Just as there was no right answer for Gordon Brown when members of the online parenting site asked him to name his favourite biscuit. Evading the question entirely reinforced his image as shifty and humourless, while his later rejoinder – “anything with a bit of chocolate” – lacked imagination. Yet what response would have sent exactly the right message: A French fancy? Too effete. A jam tart? Too racy. An Empire biscuit? Too colonial. A ginger nut? Not unless you were Danny Alexander. In Scotland, perhaps, a caramel wafer might have gone down well, in England, an Eccles cake. But, when it comes to politicians choosing something as character-defining as their favourite elevenses treat, they are clearly walking a political tightrope.
Sometimes politicians’ food faux pas are merely embarrassing. I thought the photograph of David Miliband wielding a banana was quite cool, riffing as it inadvertently did on Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man album cover. But apparently most people thought it made the then foreign secretary look like a gormless idiot. Hence the endless internet spoofs and the fact that lifesize cardboard cutouts of the picture turned up at that year’s Tory party conference. And very occasionally, their food faux pas are life-threatening, such as when George Bush choked on a pretzel.
But they are at their most politically damaging when – like Pastygate – they are tied to social class. Even though the story about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole wasn’t true, it fixed him forever in the public consciousness as the ultimate Islington new Labourite, while Jeffrey Archer’s attempts to cover all bases with his shepherd’s pie and champagne parties smacked of trying too hard.
If you fake the man-of-the-people vibe, the public see right through it. William Hague never really recovered from his risible claim that between the ages of 15 and 21 he drank 14 pints a day. But it doesn’t necessarily help to be genuinely plebeian. Jack McConnell – a Greggs man if ever I saw one – might have struck a chord with Scottish voters when he admitted going a decade without eating a vegetable, but it’s not so good when you’re trying to sell a healthy lifestyle to the sickest country in Europe.
This disconnect between personal weakness and public proclamation has been a sticking point for many Scottish politicians from Lord Fraser of Carmyllie (a portly fellow and former minister of health), who used to introduce himself jokingly as the minister for the Scottish diet, to Frank McAveety, whose decision to miss the beginning of First Minister’s questions because he was having pie and beans in the Holyrood cafeteria and then fib about it – was quickly dubbed “Porky Piegate”. Donald Dewar’s appetite was so rapacious he was dubbed the Gannet and even Alex Salmond takes much stick over his burgeoning girth and passion for curries.
Even so, it may seem strange that – in a week in which the government faced cash-for-access allegations and prompted panic at the petrol pumps – Cameron’s taste for greasy snacks or lack of it should have come to dominate the agenda.
But that is because his food gaffe crystalised everything that is wrong with the Tories in the eyes of the public. As David Davis said, they are perceived as “well-dressed, well turned out, well fed ... in a different world”.
Worst of all it has allowed the press to turn Cameron into a Marie Antoinette caricature. Like the Spitting Image sketch of John Major eating up grey peas from a grey plate and the Celebrity Big Brother footage of George Galloway pretending to lap up milk from Rula Lenska’s hands, the image of the Tory leader as a “let them eat pasties” Prime Minister will linger in the public imagination long after the week’s other travails have been forgotten.