British leaders struggle with image of being out of touch

Privileged pasts fodder for satire and voter anger

 David Cameron and George Osborne were once members of the Bullingdon Club, which is the basis of a play that depicts the drunken antics of a similar fraternity.
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David Cameron and George Osborne (pictured below) were once members of the Bullingdon Club, which is the basis of a play that depicts the drunken antics of a similar fraternity.

LONDON — “Posh,” a play based on the drunken antics of a fraternity called the Bullingdon Club that once counted Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as members, has sold out two runs since opening in 2010.

The show depicts an evening of the so-called Riot Club, a fictitious Oxford University dining society resembling the Bullingdon, getting out of hand as the alcohol flows. The Rioters descend on a pub intent on getting “chateaued,” vandalizing the place, and then paying the landlord for the damage. “I am sick” of poor people, one of the group members says.

For Cameron, 45, and Osborne, 41, the satire may be an unwelcome reminder of their own privileged backgrounds, particularly after a string of policy U-turns allowed opponents to say they were incompetent and out to help the rich. While the next election is not due until 2015, a poll this month shows voters see them as increasingly out of touch as the recession deepens and their Conservative-led coalition drives through the deepest budget cuts in British peacetime history.



“Being a toff is not the problem, even in a recession, as long as you’re a competent toff,” said Ben Page, a pollster at Ipsos MORI in London, referring to a colloquial term to describe upper-class people, particularly those with a condescending manner. “The problem will come if the narrative is that they are incompetent and out of touch, and then the toff factor becomes a problem.”

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It’s a novel political handicap for Cameron because the Tories — who can trace their roots back to the English Civil War in the 1640s — largely abandoned aristocratic leadership half a century ago. Britain’s last aristocratic prime minister was Alec Douglas-Home, a Scottish earl who in 1963 gave up the noble title he inherited from his father and his seat in the unelected House of Lords to enter the House of Commons.

Cameron, the son of a stockbroker, traces his ancestry to King Henry VII and at least seven earls. Osborne, whose family owns a luxury furnishings company, descends from Anglo-Irish nobility and is in line to become the 18th baronet of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon in Ireland. The Tory ministers who sit on the front bench in the House of Commons are described by the opposition Labor Party as “millionaires’ row.”

Their backgrounds contrast with recent Tory premiers, who stressed their ordinary roots. Margaret Thatcher’s father was a grocer and John Major’s a circus performer.

Cameron and Osborne have struggled with perceptions that they are out of touch since their budget in March cut the top 50 percent income-tax rate for the highest earners, while raising taxes on pensioners and penalizing charities.


“There is a latent danger with issues like the top rate of tax, which the opposition can exploit to make it resonate with their backgrounds,” said Simon Baulner, a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. “This will continue to be an issue while there’s not fair weather, particularly if the economy stagnates or we enter a triple-dip recession.”

They drew the most criticism in the popular press for imposing a value-added tax on hot takeaway snacks such as Cornish pasties, a furor that became known as “pastygate.”

The backlash even saw fellow Conservative Nadine Dorries deride Cameron and Osborne as “arrogant posh boys who don’t know the prices of milk.” Many of the budget decisions including the pasty tax have since been reversed.

“It was a ridiculous tax because people have got to eat,” said Geoff Wade, a pensioner, as he walked out of a bakery in Slough, a town 2 miles from Eton College, the $50,000-a-year boarding school Cameron attended. “They lack real-life experience. If you think about it, you’ve Cameron, Osborne, and the others, all rich, all millionaires. What do they know about real life? They’ve not had to struggle like normal people.”

Recent polls show the support for the Conservatives has fallen to about 33 percent, 10 percentage points behind Labor. More than half of respondents in a ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday last month said Osborne is too posh and out of touch with the needs of ordinary Britons.