Sketch: The Osborne mirage

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Osborne: But is he really all there?
Osborne: But is he really all there?

"We have the people at our side, and together we can do it," George Osborne declared to the party faithful in Birmingham. Is he seeing something we're not?

The chancellor's conclusion to his third speech in power was greeted with as much applause from Conservative party members as the last two. Osborne bashed the Labour party, poured sickly praise on his colleagues and offered a staunch defence of the decision to cut the 50p rate in March's disaster-Budget. He did the job. But he did not ignite his audience. One delegate near me actually started snoring until he got a quick jab in the ribs from embarrassed neighbours.

Party conferences are often vulnerable to criticism they are nothing but stage-managed performances, designed as much with the lobbyists and media in mind as party members. That seems especially true of this year's Conservative gathering: the ICC's well-polished atmosphere is well-suited to the smartly-dressed Tory enthusiasts beetling about purposefully. Its Symphony Hall seems more incongruous as the choice of a main venue for the conference. The floor itself is very limited, leaving most of the audience to gather in single file along the many-tiered sides, or teetering high above the stage in the Gods. All of which leaves the very strong impression that this is a performance - perfect for the one-sided non-exchange of views that is the modern party political conference.

I was in the front row of the upper section for Osborne's speech this lunchtime. This meant that my view of the chancellor was partially obscured by one of the heavy-duty theatrical lights which this sort of place is packed with. It wasn't so much that I couldn't see Osborne. Instead the chancellor's form was disrupted by the heat from the light shining down on him. He rippled, moving to and fro like a desert mirage. What you are reading might just have been influenced by this.

It was hard to tell whether any of this was real, actually. Osborne declared at one stage: "Workers of the world, unite!" This was about as novel as Ed Miliband declaring Margaret Thatcher to be his political idol. It was in fact an Osborne attempt at irony. His humour comes across on stage as being rather desiccated, shrivelled up by the demands of life in government. The grim task of imposing austerity on a country far from enthusiastic about it continues unabated.

When it came to the austerity section, the whole hall seemed to tense up. Even the mirage seemed to stop - although that might have been because I was sitting up in my seat. The chancellor announced a further £10 billion of cuts to the welfare budget by 2015/16. He had already made clear the goal was to get through this. "We have resolve, we shall press on, we shall overcome," he declared. Another lefty slogan, commandeered for the right. It was a very unsubtle riposte to Miliband stealing Benjamin Disraeli's 'one nation' tag. Osborne didn't like it. Disraeli would have been very disappointed, after realising he had been reincarnated, that "he's come back as Ed Miliband," he observed. That got at least half a laugh.

Watching the speech from the eighth row back was the prime minister, who likes to draws attention to himself on these occasions by placing himself in a position of apparent obscurity. Second in on the left, in the eighth row back, would be more anonymous if it were not for the photographers and cameramen who keep their lenses firmly focused on the party leader. It's an excellent photo opportunity. Cameron was unmoved when Osborne declared him to be an "outstanding prime minister of judgement and integrity". But he rocked forward with laughter when the chancellor described something or other as, "as what David might call a magna factor". Others were less impressed. One audience member observed as we filed out: "His jokes were shit."

Osborne is better doling out messages of doom than stand-up comedy. His speciality is the curling lip; the man in charge of the Treasury is an efficient executioner. The Tories are full of backbone, he argued, not having "buckled" like in 1972 or indulging in the "lazy politics of envy" - like the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour, he seemed to be suggesting. There was extra scorn doled out for those trying to redistribute via "the rules of their favourite sociology textbook". That got a titter.

It is a tribute to Miliband's speech that Osborne spent so much time taking on Labour's arguments. The Conservatives' coalition partners got much shorter shrift. Osborne had got only tepid applause when he mentioned that austerity would not have been possible without a coalition - but the biggest round of applause came when he made clear he wouldn't back Nick Clegg's favoured mansion tax. Tories like to pretend to themselves that they won the 2010 general election; that is, perhaps, the biggest mirage in Birmingham this year. Their thoughts are turning to 2015, and the distant prospect of the longed-for overall majority. It's shimmering in the distance, but is it really there to be grasped? After Osborne left the stage - his bleak message of more spending cuts for more years to come - many Tories will start worrying their once-clear target might just, after all, be little more than a trick of the light.

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