Prime Minister David Cameron has had his judgement called into question yet again after a “date-night” meal out with his wife on Friday at a pizza restaurant in Soho. Having enjoyed a simple repast of pizza and lasagne, accompanied by dough balls and a bottle of red – amounting to a bill of around £45 – the Premier stunned onlookers by airily leaving his delighted waiter a tip of £50. One diner, struggling to find a reason for this munificent largesse, later wondered in a baffled tweet whether Mr Cameron was perhaps feeling flush after saving some money on his order by using a discount coupon. Others have speculated that a tendency to be a heavy tipper could be compensatory behaviour given his history as a former member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an exclusive society at Oxford University noted for its habit of smashing up restaurants and paying up on the spot for damage caused. But Cameron has not always been so generous, once failing to leave a tip at all for a waitress who, not recognising the PM, said she was too busy to carry his coffee order to his table.
Whatever Mr Cameron’s motivation – and let’s not forget there’s a very happy waiter at the centre of this story – such extravagant actions are always open to criticism for a man so very much in the glare of public scrutiny. Given that, and allowing also for his government’s implacable stance on its much-criticised austerity programme, it may be felt in some quarters that a £50 tip on a bill of rather less than that sends out all the wrong messages. It’s an action, some may well carp, that can easily be related to the archetypal “flash git” yuppie of the eighties, so memorably portrayed by Harry Enfield as his “Loadsamoney” character, who would flaunt his wealth ostentatiously, waving wads of cash and lighting cigars with twenty pound notes. This was of course satire, which is at the very cutting-edge of good comedy, and rightly so. But all the best satire has that kernel of truth which validates its message, and the “Loadsamoney” image had many parallels in real life. In casually handing over £50 to an incredulous waiter, Mr Cameron surely risks criticism from those who will say this shows the extent to which he is out of touch with millions nationwide to whom £50 would represent a weekly family shopping budget.
It’s not so long ago that Cameron’s blundering Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, unwisely raised his head above the parapet with a claim that he’d be able to live on £53 a week, only to have to duck it down again hastily when a massively-supported public petition called on him to do just that. The Coalition government seem a little damage-prone in terms of such tactical own-goals, and whatever message they are trying to get across about the need for everyone to tighten the belt, grin bravely and get on with it, is continually undermined by examples of individual ministers piteously whining that their lot is not a happy one.
The Tory MP for Mid Derbyshire, Pauline Latham, recently described how she was “left in tears” after clashing with officials from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) over the matter of her security enhancements and just who is expected to pay the £9000 bill. That’s a story which many will find less than heart-rending when so many pensioners face the “heat or eat” dilemma. MP’s of all parties have agitated for a while now for salary increases of up to 32% at a time when public pay is frozen. Failed bankers and incompetent Chief Executives are still routinely walking away from the disasters they have created with severance packages well into seven figures, whilst the poorest of the poor face a struggle to find the weekly bedroom tax bill, a struggle that has in several tragic cases terminated in suicide.
It is doubtful whether Cameron, replete with pizza, dough balls, wine and relaxed, chilled-out bonhomie, will have had any of this to the forefront of his mind when he grandly tipped his waiter before heading off back to work at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, where all his food and hospitality will be funded by grateful taxpayers. The point is though, surely, that he should be aware of all of these issues, all of the time, and that this awareness should advise his every move. To expose himself and by extension his government, to such ridicule and criticism over what was quite probably a sincere enough gesture (assuming that the tip really was from the PM’s own back pocket), shows a want of understanding and a failure to appreciate just how such public generosity, on a scale out of the reach of 98% of the population, will resonate with those who are struggling to make ends meet. The lack of political awareness in a man elevated to Cameron’s high office is more than a little worrying. If the tip had to be given, could it – should it – have been made in a less public way? At least then, even if the story had come out, the effect would have been diluted by relative subtlety instead of appearing so crass and opportunistic.
The sad fact is that many in the Tory party, or even in the coalition government as a whole, will tend to dismiss an item of news like this as “pointless and frivolous” or a “storm in a teacup”. But they would miss the point in so doing. Because the incident is in the public arena, it has to be viewed in the context of the times, and that is very much a picture of so many people suffering and struggling due to our rulers’ insistence – against the better judgement of such bodies as the International Monetary Fund – on cutting, cutting and cutting again, cutting to the bone at the lower end of society where any further cuts are likely to lead to collapse. And while this is going on, the PM is out on the town, taking in a show, heading off to a politicians’ junket with the finest of freebie food and drink, and casually, arrogantly chucking 50 quid at a waiter as if to say, “There you go, my good man. It’s nothing to me.”
Mr Cameron, really. It is time to give your head a shake, re-awaken whatever political awareness you ever had, and start to think about what you say and do. Some of us out here would just love to have a chat with you about Real Life.