Conservative Conference 2015: George's Finest Hour?

The Chancellor sets his eyes on the prize in a high-flown conference address

This conference season, forget everything you thought you knew about George Osborne. For so long the bad boy of the Conservative frontbench, the Chancellor today attempted to recast himself as something altogether different: a Prime Minister-in-waiting. The race to succeed David Cameron may be years away, but in a speech at lunchtime his close confidant sought to stake his claim to Number 10 whilst sounding the keynote for the next five years of Conservative rule.

A good politician knows how to generate excitement around a speech before they have even stepped on stage, and Osborne got the pyrotechnics spot on with a shock announcement last night that former Labour minister Lord Adonis would lead a new government infrastructure commission. Barely had the political world digested this and there was an announcement this morning that the Treasury was planning to sell a £2bn stake in Lloyds Bank.

So much for the pre-match entertainment; how did the speech itself go down? After a fulsome introduction from new MP Andrea Jenkyns (the conqueror of one Ed Balls), the Chancellor opened with praise for the Conservative activists who had made the party’s surprise election win a reality. He then offered those responsible for choosing the next Tory leader some more meat with a few jibes at Labour, accusing the party of deserting “the many, not the few” it had prioritised under Tony Blair. Sources close to Osborne have indicated the Chancellor wants to tie Labour firmly to its new leader, and signs of his efforts to ‘Corbynise’ it were everywhere.

But ever the Conservatives’ chief political strategist, there was more Osborne had on his mind today than simply kicking a disorientated and demoralised opposition. The centrepiece of his speech was his plan for a Northern Powerhouse, the ambitious devolution package he embraced following discussions with Manchester’s predominantly Labour civic leaders. In showcasing the Powerhouse, Osborne emphasised the Tories were the builders of Britain, a party synonymous with blue-collar workers that could be trusted to get things done.

Osborne’s emphasis on the Powerhouse also allowed him to do something he struggled to do in the last Parliament – to set out his view of Britain and what it could be. Osborne has a reputation for being a modern, metropolitan Tory, but in this address he ranged widely through history, evoking the Conservative Party’s role in improving labour rights and the great achievements of the industrial age. The vision thing is essential for any aspirant to the premiership, and in this speech Osborne submitted the Powerhouse as his calling card for the Tory leadership.

Afterwards, several observers noted the speech had gone down better outside the hall than in, with delegates only really keen on a commitment the Chancellor gave on defence spending. Tomorrow Osborne’s chief rivals, Home Secretary Theresa May and Mayor of London Boris Johnson, may exploit this gap in his armour with more crowd-pleasing offerings. But with polls of Tory activists showing him firmly at the front of the pack, the Chancellor will feel he has breathing space to focus on the country at large rather than the masses assembled in Manchester.  

Photograph: Rt Hon George Osborne MP


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