Poor George Osborne. Sometimes you have to ask what we want from our political class. Voters bleat on about how they want ministers who are like the rest of us, who aren’t out of touch with normal lives, and yet the moment the chancellor does something as normal as trying to nab some free first-class travel, he is monstered for his elitism. I tell you, things have come to a pretty pass in this country when a man is denied the simple pleasure of trying to sneak into the front of the train without paying. Surely if there is one thing any true Brit knows, it is our God-given right to try to blag an upgrade.
For who has not been overcome by that frisson of pleasure when the check-in clerk or receptionist smiles sweetly and offers you something to which you were not entitled? An upgrade; now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. A bigger room; a sea view; a wider seat; L’Occitane toiletries in the bathroom and free snacks in the club-class lounge? This is something to tell the folks back home and never goes unmentioned when the holiday is recounted to friends and family. No sooner is your backside parked on the first-class banquette than the camera phone comes out and the Facebook feed is filled with images of “me in my upgraded suite”.
You all know how it must have been for George. You’ve had a long and exhausting day, sucking the blood out of the economy and pruning benefits. The standard compartments are packed and you may even have to give up your seat for a pensioner. The first-class compartment is cool and empty. Who can blame a chap for trying to cajole a better berth out of a weak-willed train inspector? It’s not just the extra legroom, either; there’s a choice of “two delicious sandwiches made from the finest ingredients”.
Some people have the brass neck to ask for upgrades, but most of us are just too British for that; far better just to see if you can blag your way into the upper echelon of the train. George started well, deploying his entourage of aides and bodyguards to good effect to create the VIP look that might leave his party unchallenged. But even so, the chancellor made some classic schoolboy errors. First, he forgot to hide in the toilet when the ticket inspector was coming.
Second, he did not think of walking back down to the buffet car as the inspection began. He wasn’t prepared to put the work in. He just sat there with an aide, watching himself trending on Twitter. There was a sense of entitlement to his approach that never plays well. Some see this as more proof of the snooty culture that pervades the government. But be fair; I’ve yet to meet anyone who would spurn the chance to dodge the hoi polloi and snaffle an upgrade if they thought they could get away with it.
Furthermore, has anyone considered the other possibility: that the chancellor’s privileged upbringing denied him the pleasure of doing these things earlier? Perhaps he has never been able to experience the thrill of sneaking into the pavilion at Lord’s or the royal enclosure at Ascot. (I tried it myself, but the stewards disapproved of my fascinator.) It’s not the same getting into the top parties if your name is actually on the guest list. Perhaps the chancellor just wants to know the thrill of defying the rope line, the joy of beating the system. Could it be that after decades of good behaviour he wants to throw off the shackles and stop checking out of hotels without first clearing the bathroom of toiletries, including the shower cap and the flip-flop slippers? In fact, we might actually be witnessing the birth of a new chancellor. Next thing we know, he’ll be returning clothes to Marks and Spencer, saying they didn’t fit but having secretly worn them once. He’ll be passing off Heston Blumenthal ready meals as his own cooking at dinner parties and guzzling the free samples on the taster plates at the farmers’ market.
Suddenly the man the nation booed at the Olympic Stadium will be a man of the people, a fare-dodging, toiletry-swiping, blagging British chancellor. We may not love him any more, but at least we’ll see at last that he really is one of us.