Joyless Jeremy’s not only insulted my pint, he’s punishing all my vices like no other Chancellor in history!
OH, DEAR. The nice old checkout lady at our local Sainsbury’s used to think I did an awful lot of entertaining. I’m afraid she’s wise to me now. It was some years ago when she first remarked, as I heaved a crate of beer and a dozen bottles of wine on to her conveyor belt: ‘Oooh! Are you having a party?’
I gave her a non- committal smile, unwilling to admit that this was no more than a few days’ supply for just the two of us, Mrs U and me (all right, mostly for me).
In the weeks that followed, as I returned again and again to buy the same copious quantity of booze, she must have come to realise the truth. For she stopped asking if I was throwing another party, and went about her business of checking out all those cans and bottles in such a studiedly non-judgmental way that I knew she was judging me — and finding me as guilty as sin.
It’s the same with the women at the cigarette counter, who have grown so used to my weekly requests for massive quantities of Marlboro reds that they now get them ready for me by the till as soon as they spot me in the queue. Bless them, they try hard not to look disapproving, but I can tell that they think me an idiot with more money than sense, for spending that fortune every week on an addiction that’s extremely likely to kill me.
This week, my fellow sinners and I have been punished for our little vices more severely than ever before. And that’s really saying something.
Not only has the Chancellor slapped an extra 45p on every bottle of wine — the steepest rise in half a century — with about £1.50 added to a bottle of spirits and 11p to every pint of beer sold in supermarkets. More cruelly still, in his Budget on Wednesday, he upped the tax on a packet of cigarettes by no less than 12 per cent.
Non-smokers, be prepared for a shock. For according to the Office for National Statistics, this latest rise means an extra £1.54 on 20 cigarettes, which lifts the average price of a packet to an outrageous £14.38.
Mind you, that’s only the average. I don’t know where the ONS buys its gaspers, but the price being charged for 20 Marlboro reds at my local newsagent yesterday morning was a blistering £14.80.
Incredibly, that’s now reckoned cheap in my South London suburb — while cigarettes at some shops in Kensington, where the Mail has its head office, have shot through the £16 barrier since the duty increase came into force at 6pm on Budget day.
As if all this weren’t painful enough, Mr Hunt had the effrontery to pretend he was doing drinkers a huge favour by exempting the draught beer sold in pubs from the duty increase imposed on supermarkets.
Preposterously calling this his ‘Brexit pubs guarantee’, he claimed that his policy would save pub-goers as much as 11p a pint, which he said we’d have been made to pay if we’d remained in the EU.
But of course it won’t actually save us a single penny, since he’s not cutting the duty on draught beer, but merely leaving it at the rate where it stood before the Budget. Meanwhile, inflation continues to eat away at everyone’s spending money.
Indeed, even if the Chancellor had made us 11p a pint better off — which he most emphatically hasn’t — doesn’t he realise that over the past year alone, beer prices in many pubs have soared by well over 50p a pint, as landlords have had to wrestle with all sorts of extra costs?
But then I dare say it’s been quite a while since Mr Hunt went to a pub and bought a round.
Look at the way he failed to take advantage of the tradition that the Chancellor, uniquely among MPs, is permitted to drink alcohol in the Commons chamber on Budget day.
Among his predecessors in the job, Gladstone drank sherry whisked up with a raw egg, Disraeli went for brandy and water, Ken Clarke for Glenfarclas Scotch, Nigel Lawson for white wine spritzer and Geoffrey Howe for G & T.
But not Jeremy Hunt. Instead, he followed the puritanical example set by the likes of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and George Osborne, sipping piously from a glass of water. Neat.
For further evidence that he’s not much of a boozer, consider his attempt at a joke as he announced his pubs guarantee. ‘British ale may be warm,’ he said, ‘but the duty on a pint is frozen.’
Warm ale, Chancellor? How dare you? Yes, I know Frenchmen, Germans and Americans have long accused us of liking lukewarm beer. But while it’s true that we Brits don’t like our cask ales to be icecold, like the tasteless fizzy lagers favoured by foreigners and so many of today’s young, no true lover of our national drink would repeat that sneering canard.
A decent British pub, as any aficionado will tell you, will serve its ale at cellar temperature, which makes it pleasantly cool and refreshing, while allowing the glorious taste of the hops to come through.
As for cigarettes, Mr Hunt belongs to a long line of Chancellors who have claimed that it’s purely for our own good that they’ve chosen to hammer us through the tax system. They are not primarily interested in raising cash for the Treasury, they say. Oh, no, all they care about is protecting our health.
I must say that in the past, I’ve always taken these claims with a hefty pinch of salt. After all, if they seriously wanted everyone to stop smoking, why were they always so careful to pitch their tax increases at a rate that would ensure the maximum return for the Treasury — which meant making the increase small enough to keep serious addicts like me hooked?
Indeed, I well remember vowing to myself that I’d give up when the price of cigarettes rose above £1 a packet. But here I am, after countless comparatively modest tax rises, still puffing away with the price standing at £14.80 a pack!
The difference between Mr Hunt and his cynical predecessors, I fear, is that he may actually mean it when he suggests he’s less interested in smokers’ money than in abolishing smoking altogether.
Indeed, as Health Secretary in 2014, he publicly applauded a Tory backbencher who said he would personally tax tobacco companies out of existence, and that the country should aspire to go smoke-free within just five years.
‘That’s a very good point,’ he said. ‘I actually agree.’
What is quite clear is that Wednesday’s monstrous hike in tobacco duty belongs in a different league from the tax rises of the past.
At an average of £1.54 extra a packet, not only will it inflict acute hardship on many of the poorest of my fellow addicts — who like all the country’s smokers, incidentally, tend to be concentrated in the areas this Government has sworn to ‘level up’.
As Simon Clark, of the smokers’ campaign group Forest, argues: ‘It will drive many more consumers to the black market. This is bad news for legitimate, law-abiding retailers, and bad news for the Treasury, which could cost billions of pounds in revenue if more smokers buy their tobacco from illicit traders.’
As for me, I may be lousy at maths. But even I can see I’d have to drink more than four gallons of draught beer every day before an alleged saving of 11p a pint even began to make up for the £3.85 extra which my 50-a- day cigarette habit will now cost me.
And with legally acquired cigarettes now £6 cheaper per packet in France — and wine to be bought there for as little as £2 a bottle — a booze- cruise to Calais looks more attractive than ever.
Just one problem: how will I convince HM Customs of the truth that the vast quantities of booze and cigarettes I get through every week are for my personal consumption alone? Or should I just tell them that I do an awful lot of entertaining?