For those hoping for gloating ebullience and policy whizz-bangs, the Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday will have been a disappointingly downbeat affair. Yet his sober tone, and talk of “a serious plan for a grown-up country”, could not have set out the terms of debate for the next election more clearly.
George Osborne did allow himself a modicum of triumphalism, rattling through favoured statistics – the deficit down by a third, 1.4 million private sector jobs created, and so on – before the now-familiar refrain about the Government having held its nerve and Britain having turned a corner. After the exultant start, though, the Chancellor swiftly shifted down a gear, warning of risks that remain and much still to be done.
On that, he is right. For all that growth is back in the black and confidence on the rise, few can feel the benefit and the economy is still markedly smaller than it was five years ago. But Mr Osborne’s aim was only in part to steel the long-suffering public for an ongoing struggle. More importantly, he was trying to pop Ed Miliband’s bubble after his much-lauded speech on falling living standards at the Labour conference last week. And the Chancellor’s tactic was to blame that fall on the economic incompetence of the last Labour government, sharpening up what will still be the Tories’ most potent weapon in 2015.
Mr Osborne is not a natural orator. But he found a register in Manchester which suited his message well. This was an unusually sombre, softly spoken performance, the Chancellor as a wearily experienced adult, patiently but inexorably, dismantling the impractical reasoning of a child. His response to Labour’s plan to freeze energy bills was a case in point: “People know the difference between a quick-fix con and a credible economic argument.”
Yet for all the scoffing at Mr Miliband’s shift to the left – complete with haughty reference to Das Kapital – Mr Osborne is clearly rattled. From his catalogue of government policies designed to help the man and woman in the street (with the two – most important –Liberal Democrat contributions cheekily claimed as Tory initiatives), to his account of measures put in place to help small business, the Chancellor’s speech was an overt rebuttal of the Labour leader’s characterisation of the Tories as a party of wealthy, vested interests only.
In policy terms, there was little new here – particularly since the Chancellor went public with his work-for-benefits plan for the long-term unemployed at the weekend. The promise to keep fuel duty flat until 2015 will be welcome to the many wrestling with ever-rising living costs, but it will hardly tip the balance. Then again, a list of giveaways would hardly have chimed with Mr Osborne’s “serious plan”. Instead, we have an avowedly Tory vision of Britain to contrast with last week’s avowedly Labour one. Whatever else can be said of British politics, it is no longer true that “they are all the same”.