If David Cameron fell under a bus tomorrow, and I was a Tory, I would probably make George Osborne my pick for leader. There are other contenders, notably Boris, Michael Gove and Theresa May. But the one who is growing on me is Osborne.
The shrill delivery has gone. He appears calmer, measured, more grown up. In interviews he seems more ready to listen, he's slower and considered with his answers. He does, though, have that annoying habit of repeating the chosen mantra as if we did not get it, had not heard it before and absorbed it. So, no article about the Tories and Mr Osborne in Manchester this week could be complete without reference to the current watchwords of hard-working families. They want to make Britain a fairer society for them.
It makes me laugh, this notion of the hard-workers. Who are they? Where are they? What do they look like? Does it mean those who slog, flat out, non-stop, 10-12 hours a day? Or are they the ones who push themselves for a bit, before heading off for a crafty fag? Do those who work in the City count? And does "family" include the entire lot – the student daughter who gets up for Jeremy Kyle and nobody else, or the grown-up son who claims his Jobseekers' because the "right thing" has not come along, and by the right thing he means a job in TV?
Mr Osborne, though, is trying. He's definitely got an eye on the main prize. Whether the country would vote for him is a different matter, but first he must become leader and, as I say, right now, if I was entitled, he might receive my nod. My worry, though, is that he may be setting out his stall too much, that he's determined to win over his party at the expense of balance and reason.
While his conference speech bore a stark tone, it still managed to shirk reality. Yes, we may be in the foothills of recovery but we've an awful long way to go – and at any moment, events elsewhere could knock us off course. The US has its government shutdown; the eurozone crisis has been parked, not solved. Nearer to home, his policies have not produced the hoped-for results. The budget deficit remains resolutely huge; the economy is smaller than it was in the pre-crisis boom.
None of that seems to deter him. He presses on, handing out baubles that the Tory activists adore. Ed Miliband promised to freeze energy prices; Mr Osborne will freeze fuel duty, a gift to those hard-workers who commute in their cars every day and keep the country running with their delivery vans. Who will pay for it? He did not say.
The Chancellor will target the scroungers, the non-hard-workers, and ensure that in future, they do not receive benefit for doing nothing. It sounded great to the hand-clappers in the conference hall, but how will that translate into practice? The jobless will cook meals for pensioners or do other types of community service or else their hand-outs will cease. Really? And they won't be stigmatised and there won't be almighty rows galore?
Already we live in a society of haves and have nots, and Mr Osborne's policies will deepen that divide. Perhaps that is what the Tories mean by making Britain fairer – for those fortunate enough to have work and who therefore can be hard-workers – and unfairer for everyone else.
It's Mr Osborne's declaration that he aims to achieve a budget surplus, however, that provokes the most alarm. This is willy-waving on a grand scale. It's the testosterone of those Commons battles with Ed Balls, all the glaring and fist-waving, spilling on to the bigger stage. It sounds great, but hang on – how is he going to achieve it? He can't even get the current deficit down, yet here he is, talking of having too much money.
It's not as if, either, he does not have plenty to spend it upon. Mr Osborne provided soothing notes about continuing capital investment, but when are governments going to acknowledge that our infrastructure is crumbling and needs tonnes of additional spending, not just a continuation of existing programmes?
Mr Osborne is like the bank customer who is called in to explain their overdraft. They go to the bank, looking all spruce. They say they know it's bad and they will bring it down – promise – and even better, they're going to be in enormous credit in future. They've got it all worked out. The bank manager just smiles sweetly. Of course they have.Reuse content