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

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.