Osborne goes through motions but Miliband refuses to go quietly

House Of Commons

Unflinchingly. Unfailingly. Unswervingly. Understanding.

Just a few of the words beginning with un that George Osborne used in his opening sentences during the debate on the government’s economic plans outlined in the Queen’s speech. There were others he could also have used, but chose not to. Unspecified and unannounced, to name but two.

But the chancellor doesn’t feel the need to explain himself that much any more. The narrowness of the Conservative majority has yet to puncture his triumphalism, and his demeanour is that of a politician who believes he is doing the Commons a favour by turning up in person. Having made a point of not paying attention to the speech of Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, Osborne then rushed through his own.

The Conservatives were the one true voice of the working class, he insisted. “We are the one nation party,” he declared. Though, he quickly clarified this by telling the Scots that he wasn’t particularly interested in them. For one nation read England and Wales. Or England. Or just parts of England. Whatever.

Once past the first one-nation “uns”, Osborne moved on to his “undetails”. No, he couldn’t confirm there wouldn’t be tax breaks for the richest as that was what the poorest members of society would want. No, he wasn’t sorry about making more welfare cuts – though he preferred to call it “good housekeeping” – because that was also what the poorest members of society wanted though some were still too poor and unaspirational to realise that.

The only part of Osborne’s speech not to ring untrue was his warm welcome for Ed Miliband on the backbenches; though that had less to do with his personal regard for the former Labour leader than the obvious disquiet his appearance had caused those on the opposition frontbench. Labour would much prefer Ed to hide down a drain while the leadership contenders slug it out to create a convincing reinvention of the party. Ed, though, is in no mood to go quietly.

Having begun by making a far better gag than he had ever made as leader – “My son said that at least the fire brigade would come quickly if we had a fire because you used to be famous” – he then made a far better speech than he ever had as leader.

Articulate and humane, Miliband referenced both Disraeli and the OECD in a closely-argued takedown of the obvious contradictions between Cameron’s one-nation Conservatism and growing inequality. Osborne and the rest of the government listened in a stunned silence, as if realising for the first time that their throwaway one-nationism could come back to bite them badly in the next five years.

Osborne’s only consolation was that Ed’s speech was going down just as badly on his own frontbench, for what he had done was to reiterate – only rather better than before – the message the electorate had rejected only a few weeks earlier. And it was still the most convincing narrative Labour had. While Kendall and Burnham rushed to name-drop aspiration into every sentence, inequality was still the clear faultline in Conservative policy.

It wasn’t the message that had been the problem so much as the messenger, though, if the idea wasn’t so obviously absurd, Miliband’s speech could just have been a bid to win back the job he had resigned from weeks ago.

Not so much a Nigel Farage weekend off; more a month long sabbatical. The Ed is dead. Long live the Ed. Ed 2.0 could leave happy. He had just made everyone’s life on both sides of the chamber a great deal trickier. Job done.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Thursday 4th June 2015 17.36 Europe/London

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