Those tasked with leading the country cannot wipe the stupid grins off their stupid faces - Dani Garavelli

It’s the joviality that gets you. Every time.

The way those tasked with leading the country through crisis after crisis cannot wipe the stupid grins off their stupid faces.

Boris Johnson gurning as Rishi Sunak spoke of Ukrainians “huddling in basements”; Sunak chortling while addressing a rise in the cost of living which will push 500,000 children to the brink of “absolute poverty”. It’s not merely that they are detached from the realities of the current chaos, it’s that they lack the grace to try to hide it. Everything is a joke to them; and they don’t care who knows it.

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The footage of the Chancellor talking about groceries is a case in point. Asked what product he’d most noticed going up in price, he picked bread. Bread, that most basic source of sustenance. Bread, which can be made into "pieces" and flung out of tenement flat windows. Bread, the lack of which leads to queues, and then riots, and then revolution.

Spring Statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer  ©UK Parliament / Jessica TaylorSpring Statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer  ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
Spring Statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Many people in the UK were already struggling before this current emergency. In order to buy bread, they were forced to forsake “roses”, those little extras that lift life beyond mere survival. Many now depend on food banks to provide it. Sunak, a millionaire who transferred his assets into a blind trust after joining the Treasury, understands none of this. For the Chancellor and his ilk, there is bread-a-plenty; a loaf to tickle every tastebud: white, brown, wholemeal, seeded. “Let them eat sourdough,” he might as well have said. It was no surprise to see #RishiAntoinette trending.

None of this is amusing. Not to the pensioner who called Nick Ferrari on LBC to say she survived on £177 a week and shopped after 8pm so she could buy the mark-downs. Nor to the single mum who told Ferrari she was working three jobs but sometimes went without meals so her children could eat.

It wasn’t amusing to anyone who heard Sunak’s Spring Statement: a mini-budget so inadequate it was like offering a couple of sandbags in advance of a tsunami. Five pence off fuel duty when petrol has gone up 40p a litre in the space of a year (and many of the country’s poorest don’t own cars)? A drop of 1p in the basic tax rate which won’t kick in until 2024 when the cost of food and energy is soaring and inflation is outstripping pay rises? These are paltry, insulting gestures. We are facing the biggest drop in living standards in 70 years; they will do nothing to mitigate the pain.

The Chancellor sees himself as a generous benefactor. But any largesse he has dispensed has come on the back of 10 years of Tory austerity policies. In October, Sunak the Soft-Hearted lopped £20 a week off Universal Credit payments. Then he set this year's annual benefits rise at 3.1 per cent (the inflation rate in September) as opposed to 6.1 per cent (the current rate) or 8 per cent (the rate it is expected to reach later this year).

His Spring Statement was aimed at average earners, not those languishing at the bottom of the financial heap. Raising the threshold for paying National Insurance Contributions will help 30 million working people, but not the unemployed. The Institute for Public Policy Research says the richest will receive £480 from Sunak’s mini-budget, the poorest just £120.

Yet those are the people the price rises will impact most; the people they could break. The Tory Cabinet aside, who wouldn’t baulk at the prospect of a £693-a-year rise in energy bills? But for those who have already pared their spending to the bone, it must be a source of despair. Demand on food banks is going to rise until it becomes unsustainable; more children will go hungry.

The Tories would like us to believe the current crisis is being driven by forces beyond politicians’ control: the pandemic, the global rise in gas prices and the war in Ukraine, though it started a few weeks ago, long after we were warned about the rough ride ahead. What they never blame is Brexit, though it has reduced productivity and slowed GDP growth.

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Brexit was supposed to lead to a cut in the VAT on gas and electricity bills. Instead, the UK government stood by and watched as energy regulator Ofgem raised the price cap by 54 per cent. That Sunak could scrap VAT on solar panels - woop! - was, he insisted, down to the abolition of all that nasty EU red tape. It’s funny, though, because, last time I looked, France was still in the EU, and its government is limiting the increase in household bills to 4 per cent by forcing state energy company EDF to take a £7bn financial hit. Meanwhile, in Spain, VAT on household energy bills are being temporarily reduced from 21 per cent to 10 per cent for households with modest consumption.

The Chancellor spent the 24 hours after his Spring Statement behaving as if a drama teacher had yelled “human being filling a car with petrol” at an improv class. He couldn’t inhabit the role convincingly because he is detached from ordinary people whose cars he disdains and whose lives his policies diminish. He and Johnson can carry on laughing. But, as Marie Antoinette discovered, those people will only put up with so much for so long. Deprived of bread and other basics, they tend, in the end, to storm the metaphorical Bastille.



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