It was the feelgood event of the year. Then the chancellor turned up…
George Osborne’s appearance at the Olympics couldn’t have gone worse if somebody had set him up deliberately (which I’m not ruling out). At the most basic level of choreography, he should never have been sent out on to that platform alone, with nothing between him and the people but cameramen, laughing. Cameron appeared plenty during the games, but always adjacent to someone more popular, using them as a boo-shield: the crowd could never vent at the sight of him in case they accidentally offended Prince Naseem or Princess Anne.
Osborne strode out alone, defiant yet pasty; the only reason he didn’t get egged is that nobody thought to bring an egg. The unwelcome spectre of an unkind treasurer was not the only insensitive moment of the Paralympics. It was astonishing to see Atos as a central sponsor of the games. If there is another company in Europe that has waged such a considered, unrelenting war against the disabled, such an unaccountable, cheese-paring, suspicious-minded erosion of disability’s already meagre compensations, I can’t name it. Its sponsorship, therefore, looked like active provocation.
And this was a running theme of 2012: Atos was so bad it seemed to have no concept of honour or reputation. Its decisions were so shonky that people died soon after it pronounced them fit to work. Yet every time its record worsened, it was awarded a new contract. By August, it had £3bn worth of government business.
Chris Grayling held a public meeting in Westminster Hall to defend Atos from attacks by Labour MPs and the public. It seemed so curious – this company was commissioned by the government, to do the government’s bidding, in adherence to the government’s stated policies. Why weren’t the attacks launched at the government, at PMQs, in the regular way? Because they’d done something really smart – they’d privatised public anger, outsourced it to a company that we’ll never vote for and can’t do anything about. Had they taken us for mugs, again?
For a while, I thought that was smart, but like any sleight of hand, it works only until people notice. Holding up a corporation as a high-profile flak-catcher probably looked brilliant in the blue-sky strategy meetings, but looking towards the electoral reckoning, this will turn out to be the kind of bad faith that people notice and don’t appreciate.
The fact remains, also, that you can never outsource the personality of the chancellor. Shy you can work with (Brown’s chancellorship was his golden era); dry nobody minds (look at Alistair Darling). But utterly rebarbative, enough to elicit a surge of hatred at the feelgood event of the year? That’s in a whole different league of wrong.
See also in politics
• Michael Gove deciding to mark this year’s GCSEs himself.