George Osborne has mastered the art of not being disconcertingly brilliant. Standing in for the first time for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Chancellor instead adopted a reassuringly sober and consensual tone.
He was greatly assisted in this task by Hilary Benn, who was deputising for Harriet Harman. Benn’s tone was every bit as temperate as Osborne’s. We might almost have been in church: an impression strengthened when Benn referred, in a passage about refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean, to “those in peril on that sea”, which echoed a line from the hymn “Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave”.
No signs of restlessness were visible in the House. Osborne was new enough in this role not to bore people. He had the decency, before he spoke, to look almost nervous. Here was no supercilious youth, but a man who took the Commons seriously, and had wasted no effort to ensure that all went well.
The Treasury bench was full of women: in close proximity to Osborne were Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan, two members of the 2010 intake whom he has helped to put in the Cabinet. And the backbenches on his side of the House were stuffed with people who wanted to ask impeccably loyal questions about the fall in unemployment in their constituencies since Osborne became Chancellor.
In other words, Osborne was in control, and was seen to be in control. He sought to extend this control even to the Labour Party, which he invited to give “cross-party support” to measures to counter the radicalisation of British Moslems who turn into suicide bombers. “We need to work across party divides,” as Osborne added.
Here is a trap for Labour: the trap of becoming the responsible party, the Government’s loyal helper, whether on Europe (though no one raised last night’s referendum vote, in which Labour so helpfully abstained), or on questions of counter-terrorism.
All those who look for a more elevated tone at PMQs will have been heartened by this session. But one may note that it was also a session in which the Opposition forgot its duty to oppose.
Osborne allowed himself a couple of partisan moments. After welcoming Benn, and remarking how proud Tony Benn would have been to see his son at the Dispatch Box, Osborne rejoiced that there is “no Benn in the [Labour] leadership contest, but plenty of Bennites”.
And near the end of PMQs, the Chancellor observed that there had been “not a single question from the Labour Party about jobs”. But he went on to say a few words on the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Lancastria, with the largest loss of life in British maritime history. Solemnity had returned, and with it a sense that the Chancellor was totally in charge. He in no way outshone the absent Prime Minister, yet expressed a sense of impregnable dominance.
All this could change in the twinkling of an eye, for part of the charm of politics is its unexpectedness. But in the half hour that he was at the Dispatch Box, the Chancellor made the Osborne system look stronger than it has ever been.