Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

For once, the unity of comment on the Budget was perfectly justified.

It may well have been the worst Budget in history. Which makes it all the more annoying that the 'Red Book', which contains the Budget details, is this year entitled 'Budget 2009: Building Britain's Future'. It is insulting that official documents should have propagandist titles. They should be plainly called according to what they are. 'Borrowing Britain's Future', for instance, would have been soberly true.

But at least the sheer awfulness of government finances is making it fashionable to think about cuts. Quango culls, freezes on recruitment to the Civil Service, capping pensions offered by the public services: ideas that have not been heard for 30 years are now circulating once more. What is so far missing, though, is leadership by example. People in the public service have to know that they will be promoted for cutting successfully, and to believe that their leader cares about it.

Not long after becoming Prime Minister 30 years ago next week, Mrs Thatcher came back from Parliament one day to find a pile of cardboard boxes in the hall of No.10 Downing Street. What were these, she demanded. They were 32 new electric typewriters, she was told (this was in the days before computers). Why couldn't they make do with the old ones, she demanded: 'Send them all back!' In the end, she grudgingly allowed three typewriters to stay, and 29 were returned. It may well be that the typewriters were genuinely needed, and that her behaviour was therefore, technically, silly. But that is not the point. The point is that everyone got the message.

Because of the current fin de regime atmosphere, more and more stories accumulate about the rudeness of No. 10 Downing Street and the government machine in general. People are losing the motive to clam up. I recently met a man who entered a room containing the Prime Minister and found himself ducking to avoid a mug Mr Brown had hurled not at him, but at an official who was just leaving.

One of the problems is that No. 10 never respects the demarcations about who organises what. It employs a woman, Beth Dupuy, who previously worked for Senator Edward Kennedy (now given an honorary knighthood for his notorious contribution to peace in Ireland). She makes it her business to try to run occasions like the G20, which are traditionally far beyond the resources of No. 10, and has succeeded in enraging everyone else in Whitehall. There is also grumbling from abroad. Government ministers and entourages are now notorious, I gather, for not thanking anyone and not tipping the local staff. The Damian McBride row was about No. 10 people behaving revoltingly towards political opponents, but one reason such people are now so friendless is that they have been almost equally unpleasant to colleagues.

Attentive readers may remember that this column once characterised the difference between David Cameron and Boris Johnson as being that which exists at Eton between 'Oppidans' - the boys whose parents pay the full fees and form the great majority of the school - and Collegers - the '70 poor scholars' for whom the school was founded and who live in a house apart.

Broadly speaking, Oppidans are worldly and/ or rich, and Collegers are clever and odd. …

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