I think Osborne’s main victory tonight would be to reassure those who thought him a clueless idiot. The left demonise him, and it’s easy for the right to despair at him too (yes, guilty). But the figure we saw tonight was calm, collected and assured – and I reckon this was his achievement. He allayed fears. Expectations of his performance would have been rock bottom, and he’d have surpassed them easily. He was playing it safe.
Vince Cable did his after-dinner speaking comedy act (I met William Hague in the ‘spin room’ afterwards, who swears that some of Cables lines were nicked from his repertoire), and the studio audience loved him for it. But Cable is not going to be Chancellor, he can afford to take risks. Alistair Darling came across as honest and dull – which he is. In the current economic climate, that’s not a bad image to project. He gaffed, insofar as he appeared to rule out a death tax before ruling it back in again. But I’d say he lived down to expectations.
Osborne didn’t set the heather alight, but nor did he intend to. His mission was to walk through this minefield without blowing himself up. He had in mind not the journalists, nor even the studio audience, but the audience back home, to whom he pitched his closing remarks directly. “It’s your choice, you will decide” he said – breaking through the ‘fourth wall’ a la Moonlighting. Anecdotally, I hear that a lot of normal voters are saying they were pleasantly surprised that Osborne is not the demonic oik he’s been portrayed as.
The polls will show what impact, if any, this had. But those longing for the implosion of George Osborne will have switched off disappointed. Tonight, the boy done pretty good.