Cameron Being Toff Turns Dour as Voters Question Competence
“Posh,” a play based on the drunken antics of a fraternity called the Bullingdon Club that once counted Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as members, has sold out two runs since opening in 2010.
The show depicts an evening of the so-called Riot Club, a fictitious Oxford University dining society resembling the Bullingdon, getting out of hand as the alcohol flows. The “Rioters” descend on a pub intent on getting “chateaued,” vandalizing the place and then paying the landlord for the damage. “I am sick” of poor people, one of the group says.
For Cameron, 45, and Osborne, 41, the satire may be an unwelcome reminder of their own privileged backgrounds, particularly after a string of policy U-turns allowed opponents to say they were incompetent and out to help the rich. While the next election isn’t due until 2015, a poll this month shows voters see them as increasingly out of touch as the recession deepens and their Conservative-led coalition drives through the deepest budget cuts in British peacetime history.
“Being a toff is not the problem, even in a recession, as long as you’re a competent toff,” said Ben Page, a pollster at IpsosMori Plc in London, referring to a colloquial term to describe upper-class people, particularly those with a condescending manner. “The problem will come if the narrative is that they are incompetent and out of touch, and then the toff factor becomes a problem.”
Pressure on the policy making duo mounted today with the report that Britain’s recession unexpectedly deepened in the second quarter. The economy shrank by 0.7 percent, the most since 2009.
It’s a novel political handicap for Cameron because the Tories -- who can trace their roots back to the English Civil War in the 1640s -- largely abandoned aristocratic leadership half a century ago. Britain’s last aristocratic prime minister was Alec Douglas-Home, a Scottish earl who in 1963 gave up the noble title he inherited from his father, and his seat in the unelected House of Lords, to enter the House of Commons.
Cameron, the son of a stockbroker, traces his ancestry to King Henry VII and at least seven earls. Osborne, whose family owns a luxury furnishings company, descends from Anglo-Irish nobility and is in line to become the 18th baronet of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon in Ireland. The Tory ministers who sit on the front bench in the House of Commons are described by the opposition Labour Party as “millionaires’ row.”
Cameron and Osborne have struggled with perceptions they are out of touch since their budget in March cut the top 50 percent income-tax rate for the highest earners, while raising taxes on pensioners and penalizing charities.
“There is a latent danger with issues like the top rate of tax, which the opposition can exploit to make it resonate with their backgrounds,” said Simon Baulner, a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. “This will continue to be an issue while there’s not fair weather, particularly if the economy stagnates or we enter a triple-dip recession.”
They drew the most criticism in the popular press for imposing a value-added tax on hot takeaway snacks such as Cornish pasties, a furor that became known as “pastygate.”
The backlash even saw fellow Conservative Nadine Dorries deride Cameron and Osborne as “arrogant posh boys who don’t know the prices of milk.” Many of the budget decisions including the pasty tax have since been reversed.
“It was a ridiculous tax because people have got to eat,” said Geoff Wade, a pensioner, as he walked out of a bakery in Slough, a town two miles (3.2 kilometers) from Eton College, the 32,000-pound ($50,000) a year boarding school that Cameron attended. “They lack real life experience. If you think about it, you’ve Cameron, Osborne and the others, all rich, all millionaires. What do they know about real life? They’ve not had to struggle like normal people.”
Thirty-four percent of voters said Cameron’s attendance at Eton made it harder for him to be a good prime minister, according to a poll for ComRes Ltd. published July 22. The firm surveyed 2,006 voters and no margin of error was provided. That score rose from 20 percent before his election.
Cameron’s roots became an issue with voters as scores of witnesses appeared before an inquiry into media ethics following the News Corp. (NWS) phone-hacking scandal, highlighting the close relationship between the prime minister and top officials at the company.
Cameron said in March that he used to go riding before the 2010 election with Charlie Brooks, a childhood friend horse- racing trainer and the husband of former News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks. The couple, who live close to Cameron’s country home west of London, were charged in May with perverting the course of justice in connection with the police investigation into hacking.
Brooks was also among eight former News Corp. journalists charged yesterday with intercepting voice mails to get stories.
Recent polls show the support for the Conservatives has fallen to about 33 percent, 10 percentage points behind Labour. More than half of respondents in a ComRes Ltd. poll for the Independent on Sunday last month said Osborne is too posh and out of touch with the needs of ordinary Britons.
‘Out of Touch’
Fifty-nine percent thought Osborne is “out of touch with the public,” 55 percent viewed him as “too posh to understand the financial pressures on ordinary people” and 52 percent said “he comes across as arrogant.” ComRes interviewed 2,014 people online on June 13-15.
There is a danger for Labour if it seeks to exploit the class issue too explicitly. In 2008, during a special election for a parliamentary seat in northwest England, Labour activists dressed in Eton’s uniform of top hats and tailcoats and described the Conservative candidate as a “toff.” Labour lost.
Both Cameron and Osborne have attempted to downplay discussion about their backgrounds.
In the run-up to the 2010 election, Cameron said repeatedly that he had “never hidden” his background and that “it doesn’t matter where you come from” because he was aiming to create a country where “you can rise according to your talent and your ability.”
Osborne, more irreverently, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2005, when he was also still in opposition, that he didn’t know how his family got its baronetcy before adding that it must have given “money to the government. Some things never change; suck up to the government and you get an honor.”
Still, playwright Laura Wade, who says “Posh” isn’t intended to be political, said in an interview with Time Out magazine on April 30 that class is an issue “deeply entrenched in the British character.” It also reflects an anxiety of the Conservative-led government that it’s hamstrung by the legacy of the liberal values of the previous Labour administration.
“I feel like any normal citizen would be very unhappy with the values they express,” Nigel Miller, a television executive from London, said after seeing the play at the Duke of York’s Theatre last week. “It’s a sobering reflection, a big social metaphor.”
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