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The Champagne Wars
A lesson on being out of touch
Everyone loves a good political gaffe. Michael Dukakis’ infamous tank photo, Rick Perry forgetting the name of one of the government agencies he would cut if elected, and Marco Rubio’s epic debate short-circuit stand out as some of the best. Worst than looking like a geek in a helmet or forgetting a talking point, however, is appearing out of touch to the average voter. While few politicians, especially in the United States, are remotely close to the average American in terms of education, wealth, or any other metric, it pays to be able to talk about corn in Iowa or college football in Texas. Candidates jump at the chance to make their opponent appear to be an out-of-touch elitist that can’t identify with the common voter. Publications have asked voters which candidate they’d rather have a beer with for years. Relatability is in; singularity is out.
Even a small mistake, especially about food, can lead to a candidate being described as out of touch. Barack Obama once asked, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff,” while touring a farm in Iowa. Unfortunately, there weren’t any Whole Foods in Iowa, and at the time arugula was not a well-known vegetable. John Kerry made headlines when he asked for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich to be served “with Swiss.” Both these mistakes pale when compared to John McCain not being able to answer how many homes he had while running for president in 2008. What a wonderful problem to have.
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Worse yet, several candidates for New York City mayor were asked what the median home price in Brooklyn was in 2021. An investment banker said “$80,000 to $90,000 range, if not higher.” The former New York City housing commissioner said $100,000. Eric Adams, the eventual winner of the mayor race, said $550,000. The truth? $900,000. Readers were quick to note that $100,000 in Brooklyn can get you a parking spot, but certainly not a home.
All these examples are nothing, however, compared to the relatively overlooked “champagne wars” that occurred in 2014 in the British Parliament. During a governance committee meeting in the House of Commons, the former clerk of the Commons, Sir Malcolm Jack, was asked why the House of Commons and the House of Lords had two different caterers. After all, it’s wasteful to have two catering companies for two groups that meet in the same building. Sir Malcolm replied, “The lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service.”
The man running the committee, Jack Straw, was rightly aghast. “Did you make that up? Is that true?” he asked. Sir Malcolm confirmed that it was, and also mentioned there had been a decades-long argument between the House of Lords and Commons as to which had rights to the Pugin Room, a gorgeous room in the Houses of Parliament that includes a crystal chandelier.
SIR – “A tizz about fizz” (December 13th) relied on inaccurate evidence from Sir Malcolm Jack to the House of Commons Governance Committee. I can categorically state that no proposal has been put to the House of Lords by the House of Commons to merge their catering services. Moreover, 87% of the champagne sold in the House of Lords is sold in the gift shop to visitors or at revenue-generating banqueting events. Such activities have helped us to reduce the cost of the catering service by 27% since 2007-08. The idea that we give bottles of champagne to peers is a nonsense; we sell alcohol at a profit.
Your piece also incorrectly stated that peers can claim a £300 daily allowance “just by showing up”. The scheme for claiming the allowance, from which peers meet their subsistence and overnight accommodation costs, requires members to certify that “they are receiving the allowance in respect of parliamentary work”. The suspension of Lord Hanningfield for breaching this requirement demonstrates how seriously the House takes this duty.
Chairman of Committees
House of Lords
So what’s the truth? Were the House of Lords refusing to share a caterer over champagne? While Sir Malcolm did say that proposals had been made to the House of Lords, I suspect that he and Lord Sewel are using the word “proposal” differently, with Sir Malcolm meaning more informally and Lord Sewel in the legal sense. I have “proposed” many things in many meetings, and I’ve put for official proposals much more rarely. They are two different things. I also like Lord Sewel’s combination of champagne that is sold in the House of Lord's gift shop with champagne that is available at banquet events. Me thinks that isn’t an accident.
Speaking of political gaffes and being out of touch, this would not be the final time that Lord Sewel made the news. The year after he wrote into The Economist, the Sun ran an expose of him snorting cocaine with prostitutes. Given that Sewel was serving as Chairman of the Committees of the House of Lords at the time, and thus responsible for membership conduct rules of members in the upper house, this was not the best look. So perhaps it is true that the House of Lords doesn’t pay for their members’ champagne - just their drugs.
Also, has he visited the White House lately?