‘And the finalists are ... George Osborne, Theresa May, William Hague, Nicky Morgan and Sajid Javid.” Jeremy Hunt either hadn’t made the cut for this particular edition of Fifteen to One, with which the Conservatives had chosen to start their new year election campaign, or had got stuck in A&E. Such a shame the health secretary couldn’t make it as the NHS has been such a success story for the Tories recently.
The lucky five were looking anything but lucky as they trooped out in front of the lecterns that had been hastily erected in Altitude 360, a club on the 29th floor of Millbank Tower that boasts of being “London’s premier sky venue”. The only view on offer inside or out was fog.
Osborne was the most cheerful, though even when he is caked in slap he still looks disturbingly spectral. May had on her best “I’m really not using this as a hustings for a future leadership contest because I am right behind whoever I need to be behind, but if the job becomes vacant” face. While Hague, who is standing down at the election, can no longer conceal his boredom with the whole process. Morgan’s eyes were bulging with terror that someone might ask her a question she couldn’t answer – almost any question would do – while Javid looked as if he had been heavily medicated. Being the diversity member of S Club 5 must have been taking its toll. “Our economic plan is working,” Osborne began. May was the only one who remembered to nod. “We are on the road,” he continued. “But we aren’t there yet.” As the road in the Conservative election advert has turned out to be somewhere in Germany, that might be a relief for some Tories. But the chancellor hadn’t come to boast about his own record; he had come to rubbish Labour’s. Grasping a copy of his hastily compiled Gideon bible that had been distributed to his audience of invited hacks, activists and donors, Osborne laid into the opposition’s spending commitments. “The Lord saith, ‘Verily, it is a choice between competence and chaos’.”
Up stepped the other band members for their solo spots. Hague mumbled something about Labour promises to ban food waste from landfill before ending on “It’s in Labour’s DNA / Now over to Theresa May.” The rhyme was almost compelling. May ran with it. “Long term economic plan / Now over to Nicky Morgan.” Sweat beads formed on the education secretary’s brow as her finger wobbled along her lines of the script, but she reached the end without too many disasters. “I’m sorry to be so turgid / Now over to Sajid.” Javid’s eyes briefly registered signs of life, though his voice didn’t. “Labour would keep us in debt for-EVER,” he said, his voice deviating from a monotone to stress the last syllable. It must have been underlined. As the last speaker, he also got to repeat the chorus. “Competence or chaos.”
As the questions rained in, it soon became clear which it was going to be. Osborne had made the schoolboy error of handing out his bibles before he had started talking rather than after, and several people had chosen to read it rather than listen to him. “Er, excuse me chancellor, but it looks as if you’ve made up most of your figures on Labour’s spending plans,” they said, one after another. Osborne momentarily went even paler but, sensing he was unlikely to get much help from any of his bandmates who were now all looking anxiously at the clock, did his best to defend his figures.
“To be fair,” he said. “Some of them are made on assumptions and what Labour politicians have been overheard saying on a night out with Prince Andrew. But it’s all basically true and if it isn’t then it ought to be.” Would the chancellor care to give some examples? Not really. “Certainly. Street lights. Labour plans to keep them on would cost £3.5bn. Or something like that. They are just a walking chequebook.”
Why not get the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit both parties’ spending commitments rather than just make things up as you go along? “Personally, I’d like nothing more,” Osborne replied equably. “It’s just that the Labour party wouldn’t like it and I don’t want to upset them. It’s a clear choice between competence and chaos.” Chaos had won this round by a distance.
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