In a week designed to set the political framework for David Cameron’s second term in office after his surprise success in winning an overall parliamentary majority, there was the whiff of campaigning in the air.
The three Tory big beasts with their eyes on succeeding the prime minister all dutifully pledged loyalty but, with varying degrees of success, started to lay down markers for the battle ahead.
The chancellor headed home from Manchester with words uttered at the very beginning of the Tory conference week ringing in his ears.
“Sometimes the outsider wins, you know,” David Cameron told the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday in remarks designed to tease his cabinet ally and friend.
Osborne, who is watching Hillary Clinton’s travails in the Democratic primary race, knows only too well that the most dangerous place to occupy in a leadership contest can often be the frontrunner slot.
He is flattered by the attention he is receiving and pleased that his makeover, which has seen the newly slimline chancellor visit construction sites in a hard hat and hi-vis vest, is changing perceptions about him. The jokes now are about his caesar haircut rather than about his puffy features, which gave him the air of an 18th-century aristocrat.
But Osborne knows that frontrunners provide an excellent target for opponents both to attack and to define themselves against. As chancellor, he will be acutely vulnerable if the economy falters in the runup to Cameron’s resignation, which will take place by 2020.
In his speech, Osborne sought to achieve two broad personal goals. These were to address a weakness – pre-caesar haircut perceptions about him – and to carve out his own political territory while remaining wholly loyal to Cameron.
Osborne, who normally goes out of his way to show no signs of vulnerability, displayed a new side when he admitted in the first minutes of his speech that many people, including ministers, had doubts about him when the economy showed few signs of growth up to 2013. “Let’s face it,” he said, “there were moments when lots of people had doubts whether our plans would work, moments, as I was well aware, when people had doubts about me.”
The chancellor then paid tribute to the prime minister for backing him in private and public as he hailed the economic growth of recent years. But he showed how he is developing his own distinctive policy track record by highlighting – and then advancing – his mission to close the north-south gap through his “northern powerhouse”.
Again, the new, humbler Osborne made an appearance as he said he could not be sure that it would work. “I’m throwing everything I’ve got at it,” he said. “I don’t know if it will work. But I do know that if you don’t even try you’re bound to fail. So I’m damn well going to try.”
Osborne will be scanning the sky for possible black swans that could possibly derail his leadership ambitions. One potential black swan flew into his face every day: the cuts to tax credits which will see 3 million of the lowest paid workers worse off. If the focus on the impact of the low paid intensifies, Osborne may find that his attempt to rebrand himself as the leader of the workers’ party comes unstuck.
In his first-ever Tory conference as both an MP and a front-rank Tory politician, Boris Johnson had to show he can be a loyal trooper and a serious figure.
The London mayor, who had thought that he might return to Westminster after a seven-year gap with a wounded prime minister vulnerable to a leadership challenge, knows that he needs to adapt to the surprise Tory majority.
Johnson therefore used his speech from the main conference platform to lavish praise on David Cameron’s “extraordinary prime ministerial qualities” and to talk about what he regards as the “tankies and trots” surrounding Jeremy Corbyn.
The highly sophisticated political operator lurking under the dishevelled exterior kicked in as Johnson used his speech to advance his own interests in two areas. These were to mark out his personal brand as the “Heineken” politician who, with two victories in Labour-dominated London under his belt, can reach parts of the electorate beyond any potential rival. The second was to give an idea of his personal political mission.
Johnson, showing his “Heineken” side, drew a clear dividing line with George Osborne, who is planning cuts to tax credits, and gave a taste of the sort of politics he would champion as leader by highlighting gross inequalities in pay. “We must ensure that as we reform welfare and we cut taxes that we protect the hardest working and lowest paid, the retail staff, the cleaners, who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve,” he said.
The London mayor also laid down a marker ahead of the EU referendum by making clear that the free movement of people should be included in the prime minister’s renegotiation package. “It should be up to this parliament and this country – not to Jean-Claude Juncker – to decide if too many people are coming here,” he said.
Johnson, who knew that he could not embark on a complete personality makeover, ensured that his speeches and appearances were peppered with jokes and his regular digs at David Cameron and George Osborne. His clear favourite were memories of being squashed against the hooker in rugby scrums at school.
Theresa May was the clear winner of the prize for the most brazen leadership speech of the week in Manchester.
The home secretary’s declaration that the economic benefits of high immigration have been “close to zero” left senior Tories spluttering. “What a revolting speech,” one said.
The home secretary has strengths that tower over her rivals. She is seen as a steady presence who has rarely dropped the ball as home secretary. May also reaches beyond traditional Tory voters after her lengthy battles with Downing Street to ease the rules on police stop-and-search powers.
For all her work on deporting extremist preachers and for adopting hardball tactics on human rights, however, May has one fundamental weakness which will complicate any campaign to become Tory leader. The right of the party have never forgiven her for saying, in her speech to the Tory conference in 2002 as party chair, that some people call Conservatives the “nasty party”. This was a momentous step in the modernisation of the party but it leaves deep wounds of resentment that are felt to this day.
The home secretary therefore feels she needs to mark out territory on the right. This led her, in her speech, to condemn high levels of immigration in language rarely heard from a mainstream politician.
“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” the home secretary said. “It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.”
The strong language had the feel of a cry of frustration from May who believes that Cameron may be to blame for a failure which could blight her leadership chances. This is the repeated failure to meet the Tory target to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands, which is unlikely to be met in the near future if EU migrants are included in the prime minister’s EU renegotiation package.
May was able in her speech to raise concerns about free movement. But she was unable to call for wholesale reform because she is bound by cabinet collective responsibility. No such constraints apply to Boris Johnson who is simply a member of the informal political cabinet.
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