Osborne speech is ‘political cross-dressing’

By Ian Dunt

A speech by George Osborne describing the Tories as the main party for progressive politics has been branded “political cross-dressing” by Lord Mandelson.

Speaking at the think tank Demos, the shadow chancellor said the party is committed to the progressive policies of New Labour in a manner which Mr Brown’s administration is not.

“There is nothing progressive about out of control spending that the poorest end up having to pay for,” he said.

“And it is that fiscal responsibility, allied to a passionate belief in public service reform – particularly in education – which is the only progressive route out of this debt crisis.”

Business secretary Lord Mandelson, standing in for Gordon Brown while he goes on holiday in the Lake District, mocked the speech.

“It’s very amusing,” he told the BBC.

“I think my old friend George Osborne is involved in a bit of political cross dressing here.

“The Conservatives. have been saying. they would take £5 billion of public spending straight out of the economy, then to say they are the progressives in British politics – at one level it’s laughable, but it’s certainly an audacious try by George Osborne which I think will fool absolutely nobody.”

The Liberal Democrats were similarly amused.

“It’s not clear if George Osborne developed his understanding of the word progressive with his chums in the Bullingdon Club or on the deck of Oleg Deripaska’s yacht, but it seems he has misunderstood the concept,” said Nick Clegg’s chief of staff, Danny Alexander.

“A progressive party would not cut taxes for multi-millionaires, stand in the way of reforming parliament or side with bigots, homophobes and climate change deniers in Europe.”

Mr Osborne used the open primary held in Totnes last week – which was warmly received by the media – as evidence of the qualities the Tories would bring to progressive arguments, during a whirlwind tour of media studios this morning.

But the speech centred on reform of public services, which the Tories have long supported, both ideologically and as a means to split the Labour leadership from its backbenchers.

“Because of the debt crisis the country faces we have a choice,” he told the Today programme.

“You can either reform the way these services are delivered – so the money goes further and you get more for less – or you can face frontline service cuts.

“Because Labour has no plans to reform public services… if the Labour government was re-elected there would be frontline service cuts.

“It is the Conservatives as the progressive force in British politics now who are thinking seriously about how you change the way you deliver public services so you can improve the quality of service delivery even in a period of budget restraint.”

The speech opens the door to allowing independent providers into the state sector, as is practised in Sweden

The Tories say private companies were better able to secure decent prices on school equipment, reducing the cost to the state.

“It means the end of the state monopoly on the provision of state-funded education,” he said.

“Education is still free for people, for children and parents. It’s just that not all teachers in the country are employed by the state.”

The speech is evidence the Tory leadership is trying to hark back to some of David Cameron’s early promises of liberal Conservatism after the party became increasingly focused on economic matters towards the end of the last parliament.