Today George Osborne reaped the plaudits of his party, but among the balmy warmth of applause, he should reflect kindly on what his erstwhile colleagues from coalition and those opponents from across the Commons have provided him: policies.
George Osborne may be creating a new job title for himself as ‘Chief Builder’, but actually he’s really the ‘Rebrander in Chief’: identifying policies he likes, polishing them off, getting the builders in and redesigning them from a Tory perspective. The National Living Wage is Labour through-and-through. Removing lowest paid form tax altogether is Lib Dem policy from their 2010 manifesto which Cameron initially rejected. Creating a new body to force through large-scale public building projects looks distinctly like the Brown government’s Infrastructure Planning Commission (which the Coalition effectively abolished early in its tenure). Then he flourished by audaciously purloining the left-wing call to arms ‘power to the people’. You have to admire his cojones: arch-Tory promises employment for the north based on solidarity with the working classes.
So what did we learn from Osborne after this speech? Firstly he is now in the business of selling hope rather than austerity. Compared to previous speeches as Chancellor where he metaphorically spanked the UK for over-spending, now he’s painting a picture of sunlit uplands which Britons can all take succour, especially if you’re from the North.
Chancellors don’t tend to sell hope, they peddle prudence, hope is the PM’s job and this is George Osborne’s first tentative whispers into the electorate’s ear of what they can look forward to when Cameron’s dotage in Oxfordshire begins some point in 2018 / 2019. Cleverly in this speech Osborne didn’t pretend to come from anything other than his London-centric upbringing, but made it clear that he has learnt about northern customs and needs. His ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will be a central, recurring theme through the rest of this parliament.
This Chancellor is a realist; he’s under no illusion how voters across northern towns view him. Yet he isn’t trying to win their friendship, he is trying to woo their sense and security. If successful, he can deliver the tricky Gordian knot of centrist, practical economic policies in the teeth of the anguished cries of NIMBY councils AND sell this success with the carrot of business rates retained at local authority level. Then he can reap the acclaim of boosting local economies and employment in deprived northern areas, and potentially create 100,000s more shy Tories ready for 2020.
So Labour should watch out for the new ‘Rebrander in Chief’ as his construction trucks roll onto their northern lawns to rebuild, rebrand and ultimately aim to retake the One Nation mantle for the Tories.