As I've argued previously, the tradition these days is to read the chancellor's and leader's speeches as two parts of a piece. The former sets out the economic fiddlys and route to boom-time Britain, and the latter does the feels: the vision, the philosophy, the kind of society government is set on bringing into being. And so it was last week that we had sections of the commentariat embarrassing themselves with cringing enthusiasm as Dave's warm words erased the suffering of the poor and the vulnerable, as well as the kicking-to-come when cuts to working tax credits arrive. Dave and Osborne said nice centrist things, and were duly praised for uttering nice centrist things. Nearly everyone, myself included, saw it as a land grab for the ever-problematic notion of the centre ground. This was a not-so-subtle gambit aimed at boxing Labour into a hard left corner. Time will tell whether the rhetoric washes.
Something else is going on too. Dave's only got four-and-a-half years left in the job and the jostling is getting louder. Will it be George? Or can Theresa, Boris, Sajid, or Nicky take the crown? We know who the PM would prefer, but as late as last Spring Osborne was trailing in a miserable fifth place. Yes, at that stage even Liam Fox seemed a better proposition to Tory activists than the chancellor. What a difference an election can make. By June Osborne was up two, at three. And now? He's enjoyed top dog status three months running and has a 15-point lead over his nearest rival.
Osborne always has an eye to positioning vis a vis Labour, and his leadership rivals. In this regard, the speech was also about consolidating his position as Dave's heir apparent. It showed a willingness to reach out with a message non-Tory voters might find attractive. This is in marked contrast to the incoherent babble Johnson wrestled with on the podium, the UKIPification of May, and the austere brutalism of Javid. The latter two especially, who are the main threats to the succession, were so completely at odds with the main message of conference that you could be forgiven for thinking they were set up. At times sounding like she was singing from Britain First's hymn sheet, May harked back to the nasty party image she conjured up in a much earlier, celebrated speech. If anything, had Dave and Osborne not made 'nice' speeches there would have been some, not a significant amount, but some, who'd have let their membership lapse. And as for Javid with his Mekon-like redolence, he cuts a figure less sympathetic than the Dan Dare's Venusian nemesis. He could have delivered a speech with kittens springing from every paragraph and still looked utterly inhuman.
Using their control of the party, Dave and Osborne are riffing off each other. They're repositioning the Tories as the workers' party to knock the sharp corners off and boost its electoral appeal. They could do it. More importantly for not-so-gorgeous George, if he's the one seen to be the (joint) architect and the detoxification is (moderately) successful, he's by far the best placed to inherit the party. And that is exactly what will happen, unless event have other ideas.