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Thursday, March 29, 2012 

From despair to where?

It's been one of those weeks when you just genuinely despair of the human race as a whole.

Never let it be said again that the average person doesn't take much notice of politics. All it seems you need to create a panic buying spree is for a cabinet minister to say the words "jerry can" and suddenly much of the nation decides they simply must fill their petrol tank right up. Being a cynic, I imagined that it was the latest desperate ploy to try and get the press to talk about something other than pasty and granny taxes, and an attempt to spike Labour's corresponding rise in the opinion polls. We might run out of fuel, and it'll all be Ed Miliband's fault! It didn't matter that they should have known the public always blames the government almost much as it does the unions when a strike happens, it was seemingly worth a go seeing as the bringing forward of the announcement of the alcohol strategy had failed so miserably, which if anything actually increased the perception that the coalition simply doesn't get it.

In fact, if we're to believe Nick Robinson, a semi-panic was precisely what the government wanted to happen. Whether down to their bizarre fixation with "nudge" political psychology or otherwise, they seemed to think that if they encouraged people to fill up now they'd be less impact if there was a strike, even though the union has to give 7 days' notice before one can take place giving plenty of time to prepare, and Unite is any case going to the conciliation service Acas in search of a compromise. The predictable result was that every halfwit in the country and plenty of other normally entirely rational individuals felt they must do exactly what Francis Maude and Cameron advised right that very second. When there's a queue three cars deep for petrol at 8:30 on a Wednesday night, as there was in the town next to mine yesterday, then there's something downright silly going on.

The problem isn't that those behind the coalition are stupid, with the exception of getting rid of the 50p tax rate, which was downright idiotic politically and it still staggers me that the Lib Dems went along with it. It's that they're trying to be too damn clever and instead ending up looking stupid when it all falls apart. Damian MacBride in his brilliantly insightful post into how the budget process works relates how under Labour every year certain changes to the VAT system would be proposed, and every year they would be rejected for being politically daft and/or unfair. This year, because George Osborne must have been flailing around looking for loopholes to raise money due to his monomania with getting rid of the 50p rate, he finally went with the one on hot food. In practice, there's no reason whatsoever why food that is being taken away to be eaten immediately should not have VAT charged on it; in reality, it means we have to go into all this unbelievably complicated nonsense about "above air-ambient temperatures".

It's also meant that every politician has had to been seen feeling the pain of Greggs, the least sympathetic business this side of Ryanair. There was a wonderful strip in Viz a while back showing the traditional baker having all his custom taken by a newly opened Greggs, resulting in his closing down and having to take a job in... Greggs, except on half the pay, natch. The same clever clever instinct was behind removing pensioner's tax allowance, which as the IFS pointed out still leaves the vast majority comfortably off compared to the rest of us, just that it should have been announced as such rather than hidden as a patronising "simplification".

When these things happen, as they do to every government, they usually do so over the course of a parliament. It's when fiasco piles very quickly upon on fiasco, and especially when the government itself seems to have deliberately engineered one that they start to affect the overall picture. The last week could yet turn out to be the a rerun of what happened to Labour during the fuel protests in 2000, the Conservatives managing to take a poll lead for less than two weeks, something they wouldn't achieve again for three years. It's a fairly safe bet that Labour won't remain ten points ahead in the polls, but then they don't have to: as long as the Liberal Democrats stay at about 15%, Labour only needs a lead of 6% over the Conservatives to get a healthily workable majority. And if, as the OECD predicts, there is a shallow technical recession when the growth figures for the first quarter of this year are announced in a month's time, then there's no reason whatsoever why the Tories should continue to keep their poll lead on economic competence. Then again, if George Galloway has won the Bradford West by-election, you can guarantee that the entire weekend will be taken over with Tory gloating. And we will have come full circle.

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