We are the builders was George Osborne’s message to the Tory conference. David Cameron has set himself up as the interior designer of Conservatism.

The Tories were generally held to have had a good week of it in Manchester, a city that turned out to welcome them in the customary manner by throwing eggs and calling them scum. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to turn the place into an abstraction that he likes to call the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, yet it is to be hoped that this transformation, if it occurs, will not sap the area’s traditional lack of reverence and earthy sense of fun. The aim is to make the locals wealthy, so that in 20 years they can come along, call their southern visitors plebs and attack them with sidewinder missiles. One Tory lady proposed that in future the conference should be held somewhere less easily accessed by public transport – presumably this will become easier as the Parliament progresses – but in 20 years the protesters will be arriving in their Land Rovers anyway. It is for this kind of vision, aligned to a poltical cunning untroubled by scruple, that makes Mr Osborne the front-runner to succeed David Cameron when the time comes.

Mr Osborne is said to have had a good week too, despite giving a rather plodding speech, as it seems did his rival Boris Johnson though not, perhaps, the third of the triumvirate of main pretenders, Theresa May. The Education Secretary, who burst out of her chrysalis to reveal her own leadership aspirations a week ago, discovered that she needs to change her call sign from NiMo to NoMo. Other Cabinet ministers kept a lower profile, although Jeremy Hunt made some of the early running in the ‘Does My Week Look Good in This?’ stakes by allegedly declaring that the Brits should stop moping about losing their working tax credits and start putting in the same hours as the Chinese. Thus he incurred the wrath of the liberal press for combining insensitivity with soft racism. If only he had said that the Brits should start working as hard as he thinks junior doctors ought to, he could have been acquitted of at least one of the charges.

This allocation of good and bad weeks is a largely arbitrary matter, got up by political journalists who need to persuade us that, dog-like, they are capable of responding to sounds from the political register not even audible, let alone intelligible, to normal ears. It is rare that a politician emerges from his or her party conference week either floating off the pier with a knife through the neck, or being carried back to London on a litter borne aloft by adoring sea scouts and at the head of an army of 50,000 acolytes. This being so we are happy to allow professionals to rummage through the runes on our behalf and tell us exactly what we ought to think happened. We require of them neither particular originality nor consistency. Thus, unfairly to pick on one example, last week Mr James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator, told us that it was all over for Boris; yet a couple of jokes and a standing ovation later and this powerful, baffling, figure (Boris that is) is in line for a ‘very big job’ in Mr Cameron’s Cabinet once he has dispensed with his duties at City Hall. It is not as if the jokes were particularly good. For BoJo they were decidedly so-so.

In similar vein, the untrained reader wading through David Cameron’s own speech would find that it resembled nothing so much as a loosely assembled assortment of Tweets that rumbled towards an eventual conclusion distinguished by an awful pun about the ‘great British take-off’. This was somewhat ironic since the speech’s one stand-out line was about how Britain and Twitter are not the same thing. There was also a fairly effective denunciation of the ‘Britain-hating’ Jeremy Corbyn, although it is was vilification you were up for, nothing quite matched Theresa May’s indictment of the Home Secretary’s immigration record. Mrs May is, of course, the Home Secretary, but party conference speeches are about the broad landscape of emotion, rather than detail. Mr Michael Heseltine was able unerringly to locate the clitoris of the Conservative Party, but he did not find it with a description of the finer workings of the rate support grant.

To return to Mr Cameron, what we were pleased to learn from the experts was that his speech represented a major re-locating of the Prime Minister’s id, so that, unfettered now by the influence of Liberal Democrats in his government, he is suddenly able to be more liberal. Toby Helm, another of our guides through the maze, who toils at this work for the Observer, called the speech “a highly strategic move” in which Mr Cameron was “saying the unthinkable”. Given that at one point in his speech he loosed off a mild sex gag in the direction of his wife, the PM might also have been thinking the unsayable, but we mustn’t be distracted again.

Let us instead concentrate on Mr Helm’s assessment what the Tory leader is up to. We have apparently entered the era of Cameron unplugged, his acoustic phase, in which an election victory has liberated the real social progressive to concentrate on making sure that we remember him for being sympathetic and imaginative. It is an appealing narrative and will last until the next one comes along. This, given the Prime Minister’s propensity for directional swerves, could well be for anything up to three weeks.

“We are the builders”, said George Osborne repeatedly in his speech. If the Chancellor is the builder, then the Prime Minister has styled himself as the interior designer. We must, however, wait to find out how exactly he proposes to arrange the furniture or choose the light fittings. Actual policy prescription was thin on the ground. There was, for example, a long passage in his speech when he described the difficulties that a young woman had been having getting a job until she changed her name to Elizabeth. What exactly was this job? Was she applying to be Queen? And what will now change under a Tory government to make it easier for people who are not called Elizabeth to get jobs in the future? We already have baked into our culture equality quotas, all-women shortlists and various other expressions of social engineering.. Mr Cameron, who may be many things, is not noticeably a small state Conservative, so perhaps a new regulatory authority, dedicated to name equality, is around the corner. The Conservative Party conference is not the time when we get told these things.

Equally anxious to discover the Prime Minister’s policy, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, arrived at Chequers at the end of the week, to explore his intentions towards the European Union. By Sunday, a list of apparent UK asks had been leaked to the Sunday Telegraph. These will not satisfy British eurosceptics, and for all we know will not satisfy Mrs Merkel either. Nevertheless, she seemed to head back home in a happy mood. Then again, the nature of her emissions on the topic may have been distorted by the fact that they were being observed at the time.

Advertisements