Has the Big Society a future when Cameron sips Chateau Petrus – the most expensive wine in the world – at an estimated £1,000 a bottle?

The Cameron government may find it hard ask everyone to share the burden when it can't stopping living the high life.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 October 2010

I hope to respond properly to David Marquand's stimulating and learned (in the best sense) comment on Cameron. My guess is that it will be hard for Cameron to make a success of his Big Society strategy in an era of austerity. He can justly pin the accusation of Big State onto Labour. But not the deficit. The City and the Mayfair hedge-fund managers who drove the bubble are much more closely associated with the Tories. This is why the accumulation of small revelations, such as the division between the groomed of Downing and the rest of us I recently blogged, may prove devastating. They make it hard to claim we are "all in it together" - the premise of the Big Society - if this is what life is like for the Cameroons.

A great supporter of the Coalition who grasps this very well is Peter Oborne, now moved from the Mail to be the Telegraph's Chief Political Commentator. His recent blog is worth a read as he meditates on the scale of class division in Britain. Politically he notes:

The truth is that anyone trying to pay a mortgage and raise children on £40,000 a year is going to find life tough – which is why the loss of child benefit is so desperately painful and difficult for those on middle incomes. But Cameron and Osborne both come from a social milieu which has no comprehension of what it is like to live on such a relatively modest sum. Osborne, in particular, has a history of hanging out with the super-rich, a category that was much in evidence at the Birmingham party conference. The Daily Telegraph revealed this week that at one select dinner for party donors the company consumed bottles of Chateau Petrus – the most expensive wine in the world – at an estimated £1,000 a bottle, or just over £150 a glass. Cameron visited this gathering just as the child-benefit controversy was starting to simmer. The contrast is glaring.

and later he says:

Cameron and Osborne have already sent out strong signals that they are determined to confront the problem of the feckless poor, and this is admirable, courageous and right. But they seem less troubled by the problem of the deracinated rich. The Prime Minister showed moral blindness when he took the notoriously tax-shy Sir Philip Green into government with a brief to advise on public sector cuts.

Everything that Sir Philip does is legal, but it is grotesque that a man who has parked hundreds of millions of pounds offshore in Monaco should play any role in decisions that will viscerally effect the livelihoods of the poorest members of society.

On Green, there was a hilarious intervention in the House of Lords on 7 October (Col 218) by Paul Myners, who Brown brought in to help when the banking sector was in total meltdown. He put this question to Lord Taylor after he had declared that Green was "the right man for the job" of reviewing spending inefficiencies across all departments.

Lord Myners: My Lords, I have had some past dealings with Sir Philip Green. When I was chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sir Philip, or possibly his wife, Lady Tina, in conjunction with Goldman Sachs' offshore fund's bid for M&S, told the Guardian that he would like to give my head "a good (expletive) kicking" - clearly the right man to conduct such a review. I was intrigued as to how he would carry out this review, so I sent a freedom of information request to the Treasury. It replied on 28 February that it had no records of Sir Philip Green's involvement in an expenditure review, and said, "Why don't you try the Cabinet Office?". On 4 October the Cabinet Office said that it had no records of this review. Will the Minister confirm that when the review is published on Monday it will be subject to full NAO review and 12-monthly reviews thereafter, as we did with previous spending reviews when we were in Government? 

The NAO is the National Audit Office. It is not clear when the Green review will be published. On his previous record he could well make a low bid for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs that would allow the government to pay off the deficit while he went in for a touch of asset selling and then laughed all the way to Monaco.

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