Something rather strange happened yesterday as I reached for my lunch bill after a delightful hour or so eating pizza and discussing global geopolitics as Westminster returned from recess. Staring back at me was a request for the full amount of the price for what I’d eaten. No Rishi discount. I’d eaten out to help out, but you taxpayers were no longer helping to foot the bill.
A month of dining out on the taxpayer dime has been a delight for me, I shall make no bones about it. I’ve had sushi, proper pies, Uighur noodles, searing Sichuanese heat, Thai curries, and delightfully modern British fayre.
Now though the taps have been turned off. If you want gorgeous grub you’ve got to pay for it yourself. Do not be sad that this slightly mad scheme has come to an end though. For we have witnessed a miracle.
No, no, not the full restaurants or the Instagrammers filling their pages with delicacies at your expense.
It was obvious they were going to be coaxed out by food cooked by great chefs in great surroundings with friends on long summer evenings after they saw infection rates plunge, had spent months being locked away, and were told someone else was picking up half the bill.
The truly wondrous thing is that we have seen the end of a temporary government scheme!
Around 80 million meals, with an average discount of £5 were bought by Brits in August at a cost of £400m, a cool £100m lower than expected. What’s more, bookings are up on this time last year still and people were going out on days when the discount didn’t apply.
Despite objections from Hospitality UK who want to keep their members’ bookings and coffers full using funds designed to treat the sick and educate the young, the Chancellor stuck to his promise to end Eat Out to Help Out on time and actually under budget.
Government schemes have a poor record of ending in a timely manner. Income Tax was introduced in 1799 by prime minister William Pitt as a temporary measure to fund the war against Napoleon. It still survives 221 years later, and although it was introduced at only 6d in the pound, or two-and-a-half per cent, it now features a top UK rate of 45pc.
Rations introduced in the Second World War were only removed in full during Churchill’s second term as prime minister in 1954.
We must be vigilant in the months and years to come that, as the pandemic waxes and wanes, and hopefully the viral threat either reduces or is destroyed in full by a vaccine, that the Government continues to extract itself from our lives in good time.
But let’s remember though, there’s no such thing as a free lunch; not even a free government-discounted lunch. In the end the bill must be paid in full. The pandemic is a natural disaster and disasters leave us poorer. The pennies too must be counted.
So it’s discouraging to see increasingly misguided proposals from a Chancellor desperate to gain financial ground.
Fuel duty hikes being touted in the autumn leave a bitter taste after a summer of lazy lunches in the sun. And corporation tax increases, capital gains tax increases and state largesse on Grand Projets are incredibly ill-thought out and ill-timed.
There will be a moment when we need to decide on the remedy for the overspending and the misallocation of resources.
That remedy is market freedom; creating a platform for businesses to trade and allowing them to succeed or fail on their own merits.
One of the benefits of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is that it didn’t help all restaurants equally. It was up to you to decide which places you wanted to help out, by going to them. So it was up to those restaurants to provide a service and the goods to make you want to leave your house in the middle of a pandemic for a meal.
The customer is king or queen. Which is exactly as it should be.
If the Government heeds the lesson there: that you need to let the market decide what deserves to survive and thrive, and that you can’t always buy everyone’s round on the taxpayers’ credit card, then that will leave a good taste in the mouth.
Matt Kilcoyne is the deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute