GEORGE OSBORNE made a joke. Quite a good joke, in fact.
It came towards the end of a rousing, but otherwise laughless speech to the Tory conference in Birmingham.
“Vince Cable and I will do this together,” he said.
“People said we wouldn’t get on. That we’d trade cruel nicknames. That we would knife each other in the back. That we’d try to end each others’ careers.
“Who do they think we are? Brothers?”
Osborne isn’t a natural stand-up. The gag, I’m sure, was not his own.
For all I know, though, he may have written most of the speech himself. And apart from a lot of weary and mostly unfair attacks on past Labour governments, it was a surprisingly good speech.
Surprising, most of all, in that I found myself agreeing with much of it.
“Britain,” said the chancellor, “has no divine right to be one of the richest countries in the world.”
That may be stating the bleeding obvious, but it has a refreshing ring of truth and honesty about it. Coming from a Tory.
He spoke of bringing common sense to health and safety.
About time someone did. Though much depends, I suppose, on what he means by “common sense”.
Then he picked out what he considers his and Cable’s achievements so far: “Council tax frozen. Income tax thresholds raised for millions. And 800,000 people lifted out of tax altogether, with more to come.”
The right-wing goon was starting to sound almost socialist.
And he said another thing I couldn’t disagree with.
“If we don’t improve our education,” he said – “for everyone, our country will become more unequal, more unfair, less prosperous.”
Trouble is, what you and your cronies consider “improvement” looks to the rest of us a whole lot like a wrecking-ball.
When medical students face a personal debt of £100,000 before they even start practising, something must be wrong somewhere.
And I have grave misgivings about Iain Duncan Smith being put in charge of what he promises will be the biggest reform of the welfare system since 1946, when most of it was established.
There’s no doubt reform is overdue in a system that has grown ferociously tangled and complex. But if there are to be £194billion of savings, there are bound to be a lot of losers – especially among those who can least afford to lose.
Mind you, the dismay in the Tory press about cuts to child benefit has been richly amusing. (Quote from ‘a Whitehall source’: “We will be looking at what qualifies as a child.”)
Yes, the plan is unfair. And yes, it will hit working single mums. Those who earn more than £40,000.
As Osborne put it: “It’s very difficult to justify taxing people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more than them.”
Right again, George. Frankly, that sounds a bit like socialism too.
Then there’s been the row within the government itself over a 20 per cent cut in the defence budget.
Actually, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – either the cut or the row.
The bad thing is the “promise” to America to retain our phenomenally expensive, outdated and almost wholly pointless nuclear “deterrent”. The finger on the button of which, incidentally, is American, not British.
If we’re going to go on pouring billions into defence it seems a bit wonky to keep the big gun while depriving the ground forces of resources.
It seems strange too to see the party that always bigged up on law and order threatening police forces with budget cuts of up to 25pc.
The Met are proposing to meet it by getting new recruits to serve two years as “specials”.
In other words, to work unpaid for two years before going on the pay-roll.
Which sounds like a dangerous precedent for us all.
But then, as the Tories never tire of reminding us, we are in a time of austerity.
As Osborne also said: “You don’t get to choose the times in which you live – but you do get to choose how you live in them.”
Another platitude, but another that’s perhaps worth repeating and pondering.
I didn’t choose – and the majority of the British people didn’t choose – to live through this time under a Tory government.
And each time they speak of cuts, I keep remembering the business manager I overheard a year or two back.
The man responsible for making others redundant who grinned and said: “You can’t let a good crisis go to waste.”
The economic trouble we – and the rest of the developed capitalist world – are in is just the opportunity the Tories have been waiting for.
The opportunity to take an axe to the state and its dependents.
While, incidentally, allowing their old pals the bankers, who made the mess, to go on drawing billions in “bonuses”.
In what was meant as a final stab at Labour, Osborne spoke of “the national interest or the vested interests”.
He added: “I know which side we’re on.”
So do I, George. And it’s not the one you pretend it is.