Sketch: sickly George fails to rouse the Tory faithful

Even mentioning Margaret Thatcher brought the Chancellor only desultory applause.

As befits someone whose career had crashed and burned in just six months, he arrived looking like he had come straight from being sick in the toilets. White-faced, rictus grin in place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stumbled onto the stage at the Tory Party conference looking as if he had been propelled from the wings by some erstwhile friend.
 
The Birmingham venue for the conference is an unhappy looking place reminiscent of the City Varieties in Leeds, where the BBC used to run a music hall programme for those whose careers were dipping. So perhaps it was fitting that the man who had once hoped to follow BF Dave to the top job in British politics should be forced to face his former friends in such a spot.
 
The Prime Minister himself slipped in just seconds before George started to speak, following a vain attempt to warm up the audience by MP Michael Fallon, recently promoted to the government for being able to find good things to say about the Tories on anything from Newsnight to Match of the Day. M Fallon had trotted out three company bosses to explain just how successful the government was proving and the conference, which loves bosses and success, ate it up.
 
Further attempts to deflect attention were made by the man who almost ran the Olympics, shortly to join the government via the House of Lords, who spoke of his desire to bring joined-up thinking to Whitehall. (He is not to be confused with Seb Coe, who did run the Olympics, and who will be brought out on Wednesday to ease the way into the PM's speech.)
 
But it was still as chilly as a Saturday night out in Newcastle as the Chancellor started to speak. The conference is used to being warmed up by ritual denunciation of hate figures like Bob Crow or anybody else the Daily Mail dislikes but George remarkably chose one of their own to try and ease himself off the hook.
 
Former Tory PM Ted Heath was dissed to death as the Chancellor declared that giving into the unions and bending under pressure was not his way. Instead it was the toughness of the Tory PM who followed, Margaret Thatcher, that he intended to follow. Mentioning Mrs T at a Tory Party conference is usually a "get-out of-jail" free card, but even this brought George only desultory applause.
 
He managed to get them going a bit with a bash at those on benefits, but lost them again when he said the rich might have to pay some more. The audience clapped when he said no to a mansion tax but squirmed when he mentioned the poor. And they positively withered away when, for some reason, which will clearly only become obvious when the deals with the Lib Dems are done, he decided to pay them credit. "We could have done none not it without the coalition, " he said and at least six people applauded.
 
There were several more low points in his speech as he reminded them that the hard times were not over by a long shot, that more cuts were needed and that the Hubble Space Telescope would be needed to see the sunlit uplands. By now, the panicked Chancellor must have thought all of his audience were either rolling their eyes or staring off into space as no-one had apparently realised the effect of sticking the big screen, onto which his twitching body was projected, 10 feet above his head. And so, underwhelmed by applause, he finally stopped rather than finished, wisely paused for only five seconds for the official standing ovation and left just before the big hook appeared from the wings to drag him off.
 
Chancellor George Osborne delivers his speech during the second day of the annual Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zefferman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s).

One minister likened it to the general election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.