George Osborne was booed by a hefty contingent of the 80,000-strong crowd in the Olympic stadium this evening. He was handing out medals for the Paralympic T38 400m, and as his name was read out over the tannoy, the crowd let out a loud volley of boos.
I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the stadium this evening watching the athletics, and the boo that echoed around the stands did not come from one part in particular. It was a deep, pantomime-villain boo. ‘Why does nobody like that man?’ the girl behind me asked her mother. ‘He’s – well, it’s complicated – but he’s the head of the economy, and no-one likes him,’ her mother replied.
It was hardly a surprise – least of all to the man himself – that Osborne is unpopular. The polls are clear that he is the ‘weak link’ in the government at the moment. He admitted as much at the weekend. But the booing this evening was still quite remarkable for anyone actually in the stadium. Don’t forget that this was at an event that is about sport, not politics. It wasn’t an appearance before the rather more sceptical members of the electorate on Twitter. It wasn’t even a grudge match between two football teams where fans’ blood was up and insults were already flying through the air.
This was the cheeriest evening for a politician to appear in front of the public: the crowd had bellowed Mickey Bushell to gold earlier in the T53 100m, and had sung the national anthem lustily. They had cheered athletes who were in last place until they reached the finish line, some of whom had been lapped twice in the 5000m. There was enough goodwill in this stadium to last a decade of Christmases. When Osborne appeared, the spectators around me were munching on curries and chips and befriending one another. And then they heard the Chancellor’s name, dropped their goodwill, and booed.
As I blogged before the games began, the Paralympics are particularly toxic for this government. It’s not just the row over the decision to allow Atos to sponsor the games and plaster its logo all over the venues. It’s also that the government is replacing the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment, a controversial move which disability rights campaigners argue aims to save money rather than better equip disabled people. Cutting benefits for disabled people is not a popular move at any time, but now Paralympians themselves have criticised the introduction of the PIP.
But it’s worth noting that other politicians haven’t received the same reception when they’ve appeared beside the medal podium. Osborne wasn’t the face for unpopular benefit cuts this evening: he was, as that mother near me pointed out, there as ‘the head of the economy’, an economy which anyone in the stadium could have told you is not in good shape at all.