I’m writing this from the Conservative party conference, where my enthusiasm for the coalition has been dampened by the child benefit cut. As a father of four, I’ll be £3,100 a year worse off. That came as a bit of a blow, particularly as I’d just shelled out £650 for a security pass and £160 to connect to the internet inside the conference centre. It would have been cheaper to fly the kids to Disneyland.
Talking to seasoned hacks at The Spectator’s jamboree on Monday night, the conclusion was that it was intended to inflict a bit of misery on the middle classes before the announcement of the spending review. That way, the government can argue that the cuts will be ‘fair’ since people like me will be sharing the pain.
This sort of political stunt is characteristic of the government, but it’s hard to work out who the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are trying to impress. Guardian columnists? Not likely, judging by Polly Toynbee’s reaction. ‘If Osborne wanted to tax the rich, why target only families with children instead of income tax falling on all equally?’ she wrote. Lib Dem voters? They, too, appear unconvinced by the government’s ‘progressive’ credentials. Vince Cable? Maybe. But it’s a bit galling that Mr Mansion Tax should be dictating government policy when I didn’t vote for his party. On the contrary, I voted for the party that promised to cut inheritance tax.
An opportunity to take revenge presented itself when George Osborne put in an appearance at the party. I had just been emailed the Morten Morland illustration that’s on the cover of this week’s issue, so I waved it under his nose. ‘What d’you think? Is it an accurate likeness?’ To give him credit, he laughed and said that at least Morland had got the Bullingdon uniform right.
I didn’t have the nerve to repeat the stunt when David Cameron appeared. This is the second time I’ve bumped into him since the election and on both occasions I’ve had to fight the urge to genuflect. Not because I’m a ghastly little Tory Boy — or at least I don’t think that’s the reason. When the Prime Minister appeared on Monday night I was standing next to the Guardian’s Michael White and Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow and they, too, seemed slightly overcome by his presence. Hard to say for sure, but it looked as if they were repressing the impulse to bow as well. The natural human reaction on being confronted with someone occupying such high office is to tug your forelock.
My late father used to tell a story to illustrate this point. In 1977 he attended an international seminar in Windsor at which various sociologists were trying to work out why the monarchy had survived. They couldn’t understand why the citizens of a modern liberal democracy continued to tolerate an unelected head of state. Was it something to do with our deferential character?
After a session came to an end on a Sunday morning, my father suggested they attend the service at the local church. It would be an opportunity to study the eccentric British people at close quarters. In fact, their field trip proved more fruitful than they imagined because the Queen herself turned up. The effect on the assembled cast of bearded sociologists was instantaneous. ‘They practically fell to their knees,’ said my father. ‘Professor Funkquiest from the University of Stockholm was so awestruck I thought he was going to faint.’
Emily Maitlis, the Newsnight presenter, had a similar effect at the Spectator party. Cabinet ministers were swarming around her like bees. I couldn’t help noticing that she always seemed to be clutching two drinks, as if she’d just been intercepted on her way back from the bar. Yet she never handed the second drink to anyone. I managed to snatch a couple of minutes with her in between Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude and asked her about this. ‘It’s a top tip I was given by a conference veteran,’ she said. ‘Always carry two drinks so you have an excuse to get away if you’re buttonholed by a bore.’
A few moments later I spotted Peter Oborne and seized the chance to ask him about the child benefit cut. Did he think it was a sop to the Lib Dems? ‘I’d love to chat, but… ’ He let the sentence trail off and nodded towards the second drink he was holding. Then he dashed off to talk to Emily Maitlis.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 9, 2010