Only days after Tony and Cherie Blair were spotted on holiday together in Marabella, another couple not seen together in public for years have made a joint public appearance. David Cameron has stepped out with Nick Clegg so often in the past four years that people have been wondering where his real affections lay, but this time he was accompanied by his long-term partner, George Osborne.
“We are an economic team led by a very strong Prime Minister,” the Chancellor declared, thus making it clear that no matter what secret fantasies Nick Clegg may be harbouring about the beauty of David Cameron’s butt or whatever, he is not going to bust up the most successful partnership in recent Conservative history.
It’s not hard to see why Mr Cameron might prefer to leave his significant other indoors. Prime ministers perform for the public almost every day, when chancellors are locked away inside the Treasury doing domestic chores. Just like Gordon Brown, George Osborne has forgotten how to behave in public.
While David Cameron strode confidently into the packed hall at the Skanska factory in Maple Cross, Hertfordshire, fashionably late, George Osborne trailed behind already looking as if his thoughts were somewhere else already. His face was a deathly shade of white.
By the look of him, he has not been out in sunlight all year, while Cameron’s face glowed with a Lanzarote tan. And George’s haircut! It looks like the detachable hair on a Playmobil toy.
Skanska was chosen for this ground-breaking visit because it has been named as “the greenest company in the UK”, because of its involvement in prestigious public projects, and because it is about to advertise 1,500 new jobs.
The staff, who filled every available inch of floor space in the hallway, and the spiral staircase, and the balconies overhead, had been told only that two Cabinet ministers were coming to address them. When the names were revealed there was a cry of “Oh!” That is ‘Oh’ as in “Oh, that’s quite special, isn’t it?”, not “Oh God, what a disappointment.” David Cameron actually thanked them for not being disappointed.
The visiting twosome took questions from Skanska employees, and a few from the journalists in the back row – well, four, actually, two from broadcast journalists, one from the Watford Gazette and one from Construction News. None from national newspapers. When Osborne spoke, Cameron put on the full eyebrows knitted in concentration, hands on pointed chin, nodding in agreement act. When Cameron spoke, which was most of the time, the Chancellor managed the occasional desultory nod, but mostly he stood with mouth turned down, hands clasped together, and a blank look that could almost have been a snarl. This is a man with better things to do with his time.
They were bidding for votes at next year’s general election. David Cameron’s basic argument is well rehearsed. He repeats that the coalition inherited an economic mess in 2010, which they have begun to clear up, but what would really do the trick would be if the voters returned a majority Conservative government in 2015.
George Osborne rather gave the tactics away when asked about whether he agreed that it was important to achieve all-party consensus on big public projects. The Chancellor agreed that it is, citing the HS2 rail link as an example. He added: “Attempts to break the consensus by some politicians have actually not got anywhere because the rest of the political party concerned said we want to go ahead with this.”
He named no names, but those of us in the back row all thought we detected the name “Ed Balls” lurking in the unspoken section of the thought. Their tactic is to play the Balls.
There is a European election coming up a whole year sooner than the one they were talking about. In it the Tories are expected to suffer the indignity of being outpolled by Ukip, but the duo did not want to talk about that. Invited to condemn Ukip’s latest election poster, David Cameron batted the question away. “I just want to talk about the issues,” he declared.
There is a long road ahead to May 2015. It is going to be a trudge.