On Friday George Osborne, was in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, signing a deal with local Labour leaders to pave the way for the election of a Sheffield city region mayor in 2017. The pointed significance of the venue was not lost on the chancellor, who was 13 when the battle of Orgreave was waged by police and picketing miners in 1984.
On the ashen terrain of that harsh decade, Osborne - now first secretary of state as well as chancellor - hopes to raise up a “northern powerhouse”. Is it coincidence that most of those who sneer at the idea as no more than a political gimmick do not themselves live in the north? During the last parliament, Ed Balls upbraided Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Manchester city council, for dealing with Osborne. Balls was rewarded with an earful. This week’s Conservative conference will be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s victory lap, a ticker-tape parade for a party leader who pulled off an electoral upset so unexpected that he and his aides had not drafted a speech for Cameron to deliver in the case of an outright majority. But it will also be a George Osborne fest, as the tribal Tory party pays homage to its most ruthlessly successful electioneer and the architect of the economic strategy that the electorate trusted sufficiently to endorse in May. That’s not propaganda. That’s psephological reality.
Naturally, the issue of Europe looms over the gathering in Manchester. But when was that not true of a Tory conference? Then add this to the mix: not since 2005, the conference at which Cameron surged from Michael Howard’s protege to leader-in-waiting, has a Conservative gathering been so clearly a hustings for the top job. Osborne is unquestionably the contender to beat. But Theresa May, Nicky Morgan, Sajid Javid and, of course, Boris Johnson will be among those testing the waters.
Hear the primal roar of the activists when the mayor of London delivers his speech today, and remember that it is the 150,000 or so members who will choose Cameron’s successor from a shortlist of two whittled down by the parliamentary party. So Osborne has a choice: use his formidable powers of parliamentary management to make sure Johnson is not one of the final two, or go head-to-head with him in a battle for the members’ hearts and minds. To the chancellor’s credit, he’s long grasped all this.
Ethically right path
The official narrative arc of the week has two principal dimensions. First, it engages with those Tories who believe that Corbynmania has delivered the party into a policy nirvana where it can indulge its most robust, rightwing, polarising policies, confident that Labour has gone ideologically awol. But this is not what the voters asked for in May — a bunch of Tory Trotskyites wedded to an “unfinished revolution”, now free to privatise everything from the army to the Duchess of Cambridge, dismantle the NHS and the BBC, and destroy the unions. Cameron will remind his troops, even as they twitch with the candy high of victory, that he remains a “modern, compassionate Conservative” and that this is both the route to electoral success and the ethically right path. Tories have always felt more comfortable with Keith Joseph’s notion of the “common ground” than the “centre ground” - Cameron used the former on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show - but the GPS system leads to the same terrain whichever nomenclature you use.
This involves a point-by-point response to the “ instruction to deliver “ received in May. For most families, for instance, seven-day access to GP surgeries would be one of the most significant NHS reforms since the foundation of the service. It is a much less complex plan than former premier Tony Blair’s reduction of hospital waiting lists. But more than 90 per cent of all contacts with the NHS occur in general practice — about 340 million consultations a year. Imagine being able to take a sick child or elderly relative to the surgery at the weekend. Not transformative perhaps, but a change that would be noticed by voters more than any number of demented NHS internal reorganisations.
By the time Cameron delivers his speech tomorrow, the pitch will have been successfully rolled, and the collective mood ready for the prime minister to claim that the Conservatives are the party of working people. He will, I am told, tackle the question of inequality. But rhetoric alone will not cut it.The national living wage is at the heart of the Tory strategy, not as a substitute for dwindling tax credits but as an entirely different system, where employers pay a fair rate in the first place, and are not subsidised by the taxpayer if they refuse to do so. The more sinew and flesh he puts on the skeleton of this idea, the better.
The founding text in the endeavour is Grand New Party, a book co-authored in 2008 by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, that urged the Republicans to embrace the concerns and preoccupations of ordinary working Americans. Salam, in particular, is well known in Whitehall and a lucid advocate of this broad approach to right-of-centre politics, specifically its appeal not only to Mondeo Man but also to the man who mends the Mondeo when it breaks down.
At the Treasury Neil O’Brien , Osborne’s special adviser, has immersed himself in this bold bid to make the Tories the party of the working class (and overseen much of the “northern powerhouse” blueprint). It is by far the most radical adventure upon which this generation of Conservatives has embarked. Talk about the audacity of hope.
For the prime minister himself, the explicit question of legacy can no longer be postponed. He has so much left to do — not least win a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, and (I surmise) remodel the state. But fate has also conspired to give him an extraordinary opportunity, after an election he was not expected to win, against a Labour party apparently on sabbatical, to position the Tories for a generation in power. Maybe he is lucky. But as Arnold Palmer remarked: “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” The stakes are huge for the prime minister, party and country. Such opportunities to redraw the landscape come alone only once a generation. History will not be kind if he blows it.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd