Peter Hoskin

Nothing exceptional, but a job well done by Osborne

Nothing exceptional, but a job well done by Osborne
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They stopped letting people into the conference hall for George Osborne's speech long before the Shadow Chancellor took to the platform - it was packed, not even standing room.  There was certainly an anticipatory buzz among Tory supporters, particularly after some of the policy announcements trailed in the papers this morning.  One delegate assured me that "this is the speech when George will convince the nation that he's the man to deal with Brown's mess."  Everyone seemed pretty breathless.

So did he pull it off?  Well, my immediate response is "yes and no".  Probably more "yes" than "no".  There was much that was impressive in the speech.  Osborne touched on all the right themes: debt, reform, compassionate conservatism, etc.  And he did so with a clarity that we haven't really seen since his response to the Pre-Budget Report last year.

The greatest success of the speech was how Osborne deflected any "nasty Tory" attacks that Labour might be lining up.  When he trumped Alistair Darling by announcing a pay freeze across "each part of the public sector", he followed it by saying that this both protects the public sector from job losses, and ensures that the budget isn't balanced "on the backs" of the poorest in society or our troops in Afghansitan.  It may be an emotive apporach, but it's also right.  Labour will struggle to argue against it.

But when it came to the specific proposals, there was a little something lacking.  The Tories were hawking this speech as one which would make their spending restraint plans a great deal clearer, and they're pushing the line that it would save £23 billion over the course of the next Parliament.  Which is welcome, in that every little helps in dealing with the debt crisis.  But it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  What about the other £billions upon £billions that will need to be saved? Just how will they cut the Whitehall bureaucracy by a third in four years?  Word is, the Tories will deal with this in time.  But the election - and the Tories' window of opportunity for the far-ranging mandate they need - is closing fast.

Overall, though, Team Osborne will be pleased at a job well done.  Labour will probably get stuck into Osborne's claim that, while the inheritance tax cut won't be a priority, they would introduce it during the next Parliament.  But they'll struggle to land any blows.  Osborne is becoming more confident mixing "cuts" with "compassionate conservatism".  And it doesn't leave much room for Brown & Co.