George Osborne today displayed the iron nerve that has taken him all the way from Notting Hill to Westminster. He took the risk of addressing the ConHome spring conference directly after Robert Halfon.
People loved hearing from Halfon. The MP for Harlow urged that Tories cannot just be technocrats: to have a moral mission is vital. My neighbour said with feeling as Halfon sat down: “That was the best speech I’ve heard for a long time.”
Osborne wisely avoided any attempt to compete with Halfon for the moral high ground. With studious modesty, the Chancellor instead presented himself as a delivery driver. When in May 2015 the doorbell rings, you will open the door to find the reassuring figure of Osborne standing on your front step, addressing you with the words: “Here’s the long-term economic plan you ordered in May 2010. Would you just like to vote for it?”
Delivery is not a subject to make one’s heart soar on a Saturday morning, or at any other time of the week. But Osborne wasn’t trying to make hearts soar: he wanted instead to prove that the Conservatives are the only delivery service on which the British people can rely.
So he remarked with quiet pride, and even with a quiet smile, that there is “desperate disappointment” in the TV studios of the BBC that in the wake of Thursday’s elections, infighting has not broken out inside the Conservative Party, as for months had been predicted. The Conservatives are every bit as disciplined as a first-class delivery service needs to be.
Not, the Chancellor added, that the Tories “remotely complacent” about the results of these elections. Some of us wondered whether any other form of complacency – one that is not remote, but perhaps near at hand – might be permissible. How we yearn to wallow for half an hour in a piping hot bath of complacency.
But Osborne indicated that any form of complacency was out of the question. He said how much the Conservative Party respects the voters, including those who supported UKIP, and he summed up the Tory response in three words: “Listen, respond, deliver.”
Once again we see the emphasis on delivery. This was accompanied by an insistence that no other firm can be relied upon to deliver any kind of long-term economic plan direct to your front door. Labour would just bring you the short-term recklessness which got us all into such desperate trouble last time.
And in any case, people have seen through Labour, which polled eight per cent less in these elections than it did two years ago. According to Osborne, “the chink in the armour of the northern Labour fiefdoms has been exposed”.
It is true that the people who did the exposing were not the Conservatives but UKIP. But this was because people had accepted Nigel Farage’s claim that this was “your free hit against the political establishment”.
At the general election, Osborne insisted, there will be no such thing as a free hit. We seem to remember Milton Friedman saying something along the same lines. It is reassuring to find the Chancellor orthodox in his economics.
Osborne roused himself to a final effort to explain what he was driving at: “If you don’t want Ed Miliband you have to vote Conservative and that is an incredibly clear message.”
So it is. The Chancellor now left us, claiming he needed to catch the twelve o’clock train to Newark. Across the country, Tory delivery vans will fan out over the next twelve months, emblazoned with key messages from this speech. Some will say “We are the team that can best deliver”, while others will carry the slogan “Turning anger into answers”.
My neighbour who was so keen on Halfon summed up the Chancellor in a single word: “Solid.”