As a founding member of the Beastly Boys, the behaviour of the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has brought delight to both friend and foe over the years. So it was that both settled down to hear the latest rantings from the man that even Tory Party Central Office believes should only be let out after dark and when the kids are in bed.
The exception to this rule is the annual conference of the Conservative Party where delegates pay cash money to be fed gobbets of raw meat, preferably stripped from the thighs of the obese people who clearly make up the vast mass of the bloated public sector. George has always been a master at delivering these choice morsels, fixing the delegates — sorry, representatives — with a look which made them silently relieved he was on their side.
But when the coffin lid creaked open yesterday, a stranger emerged. He looked like George but he sounded like somebody else.
With the economy in the toilet, growth being measured in sub-divisions of millimetres and the future looking even grimmer, he knew he was on a hiding to nothing. Everyone at least expected a fight, but the Chancellor had clearly decided this was one of those days when he just couldn’t be arsed.
His critics, which included at least half the people in the hall, were hoping to hear something about a possible Plan B or at least a Plan A-and-a-quarter, but all they got was Plan G.
Normally George, much better at public frightening than public speaking, starts off in the lower end of the contralto range in his speeches heading towards counter tenor as his excitement and nervousness builds up. But today he seemed determined to bore his audience into submission. Only 24 hours earlier Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, said the Government’s growth strategy was “incoherent and inconsistent”.
Surely enough, thought many, to get George going. But there was hardly a falsetto note from his throat as he took us through a few verses of “Non, je ne regrette rien”.
It had been billed differently with promises of exciting announcements and at least a Flashman-like performance so beloved of the other bullies for whom he is a hero.
Best friend Dave slipped in to muted applause just before Joanna Lumley — or at least, her voice coach — announced the arrival of the star turn. But George was downbeat from the start.
“Together we will ride out the storm”, he told them, though you could see many representatives were not sure they were on the same horse.
“You can’t borrow your way out of debt”, he said as the applause rose from nervous to half-hearted.
“We have a deficit plan which commands the support of world markets”, he added, but clearly not a whole slice of the room in front of him.
It took a full 30 minutes before an aside about “irresponsible trade unions” reminded them that this was the Tory Party conference and this was George speaking. But that appeal to the recidivist wing was over almost before it began and the gloom continued to spread.
Yes, he did mention the freeze on council tax, winning applause from those who had clearly been out on the toot last night and missed the less-than-illuminating interview with him on the Today programme, not to mention every national newspaper.
But you felt his heart was not in it, and he only seemed to smile when he said he was out of here as soon as possible to attend another crisis meeting in Europe. (Dave’s minders must be hoping he stays there and isn’t stuck behind him like the Ghost of Christmas Past during the PM’s sermon to the converted on Wednesday.)
And as suddenly as it began, it was over. A rictus grin, a wave and he was off the stage to less applause than Wayne Rooney would get from Manchester City fans.
Now, according to George’s friends — not an oxymoron — and an insightful piece on him in yesterday’s Observer, the Chancellor “carefully rations” his public appearances, being aware that he is short on touchy-feely. This has led to the nickname, say mates, of “the submarine”; someone who stays underwater, out of view, for long times. But when he does appear, he has a plan. George wants to be Prime Minister although, unlike Gordon, has no present plans to assassinate the incumbent.
But if becoming the next Prime Minister-But-One is the objective then playing the long game is what’s needed, and George didn’t get where he is today… etc, etc.
The gamble is that the UK will eventually emerge from the slump and then the Tories will remember who stood Thatcher-firm during the hard times.
It may not be Plan A but it’s definitely Plan G.
Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.