Mischievous fellow that he is, George Osborne could not resist using his Conservative conference speech to have a dig at his erstwhile nemesis, Ed Balls. It was Andrea Jenkyns, the Tory who dislodged Balls in Morley and Outwood, who introduced the Chancellor on stage. “If I’d told you twelve months ago that the Member of Parliament for Morley and Outwood was going to come onto this stage and speak in our economy debate you’d have called security,” Osborne went on to quip.
But his speech showed that he has ambitions far greater than merely capturing Labour seats. He wants to colonise the political territory that the party has for so long regarded as its own. After introducing a “national living wage”, clamping down on non-doms and recruiting former Labour peer Andrew Adonis, now a cross-bencher, to lead a National Infrastructure Commission (an idea shamelessly poached from Balls), Osborne made a series of further ruthless raids. He announced that local councils would be allowed to keep all of the £26bn raised by business rates (in return for the abolition of government grants), another policy lifted wholesale from the Labour manifesto. In a twist, he added that they would be free to cut rates by “as much as they like – it’s up to them to judge whether they can afford it.” The dangers are obvious: poorer councils could be penalised, while others find themselves in fiscal chaos. But Osborne, aware that big rewards come from big risks, has unambiguously claimed the mantle of devolution for the Tories (a subject about which Jeremy Corbyn has said remarkably little). It is ground that Labour will struggle to wrest back – if it even wants to.
More deadly than any policy, however, was Osborne’s sustained love-bombing of the millions who voted for the opposition. In victory, the Chancellor has behaved with greater humbleness than his Labour opponents did in defeat. “Millions of working people. These people need to know we are on their side. Because many of them, let’s be frank, still voted for the Labour Party just this May. They want security and opportunity, but they didn’t quite feel able to put their trust in us. We’ve got to understand their reservations,” he said, displaying the self-reflection that was so absent from Labour’s gathering in Brighton. He added: “Do you know what the supporters of the new Labour leadership now call anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy, and the country living within its means? They call them Tories. Well, it’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” And there was more: “I think it’s a great weakness of today’s Labour Party that it can’t acknowledge any good things done by Conservatives. I’ll always pay tribute to the role the Labour movement played in building the NHS and establishing rights in the workplace.”
It would be an error for Labour to merely dismiss this as empty rhetoric. Rather, it must craft a positive and relevant vision that overpowers Osborne’s. And as he woos the 9.3 million who voted Labour, it should ponder what it is doing to appeal to the two million more who voted Conservative. As Osborne showed today, a good start is to stop insulting them.
There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for the Chancellor: the reduction in tax credits for the very “strivers” he claims to back, the huge, and many believe undeliverable, cuts to public services. But as the experience of the last five years showed, the opposition cannot complacently assume that Tory failure leads to Labour success. Osborne’s speech, delivered with the confidence of a leadership frontrunner, should terrify his opponents. It is a mark of Labour’s woes that it almost certainly will not.