When MPs got a chance to discuss the horsemeat-in-burgers affair, their anti-supermarket feelings came to the fore
A text from home: “I was in the Tesco caff for lunch and the waitress asked if I wanted anything on my burger. So I said, ‘Sure, a fiver each way’.” Yesterday the Commons discussed nag-gate, or whatever it’s called. MPs do not often debate beef, at least not since the Rump Parliament. The opposition hoped to outflank the Tories and make mincemeat of the minister, who would have had his chips. The government wanted to skirt round the issue.
The minister, charged with answering, a Lib Dem called David Heath, usually quite a measured fellow, adopted a highly aggressive manner. He charged into the fray like a bull who, thinking he has just found a pleasant china shop, realises he has stumbled into an abbatoir.
The gist of his argument was that (1) he wasn’t to blame, (2) it was someone else’s fault and (3) he had nothing to do with it. The rest of the Commons, chiefly Labour MPs who loathe the Lib Dems, and Tories who believe that the Lib Dems are the horsemeat in the coalition, didn’t entirely accept this. In fact they were extremely cynical.
Mary Creagh, for Labour, said that the scandal would have been discovered if the government hadn’t made three different agencies responsible for food inspection, and had cut the funding for them anyway. And, she added, “The horse passport system is a mess.”
We were shocked. Some of us didn’t know horses had passports. We wondered: how do they get them into those little photo booths? Perhaps by telling them they’re starting stalls.
Mr Heath told her not to talk down the British food industry. This is a standard wheeze for ministers: when anyone implies that the government has botched something, imply that it is actually a disgraceful attack on, say, nurses, firefighters, policemen or, in this case, the sturdy yeomen who sit on the Tesco board.
Mr Heath got crosser and crosser. Ben Bradshaw suggested that he change his tone. Mr Heath declined to answer. “I do not think your comments require a reply.” He was copying his namesake, the late Edward Heath, who also believed that disagreeing with him was, ipso facto, proof of error, or possibly madness.
MPs, including Tories, were furious with Tesco, which needed to rebuild trust with its customers. Trouble is that nobody really likes Tesco. People go to Tesco because Tesco buys up all the competition and they have no choice.
Mr Heath grew testier. “I can honestly say that I am not personally responsible!” he snapped.
Labour’s Kevin Brennan accused him of having been “captured, stunned, trussed up and served to the nation as minister for the producer interest.” Ooh, that must have hurt! “That is clearly not the case,” Mr Heath barked in reply.
I recalled that, years ago as a student in France, I stayed with a family who were clearly not well off, but who ate steak almost every day. I soon found how they managed it. I can reveal that it is not bad, although slightly tougher and gamier in flavour than beef.