As befits someone whose career had crashed and burned in just six months, he arrived looking like he had come straight from being sick in the toilets. White-faced, rictus grin in place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stumbled onto the stage at the Tory Party conference looking as if he had been propelled from the wings by some erstwhile friend.
The Birmingham venue for the conference is an unhappy looking place reminiscent of the City Varieties in Leeds, where the BBC used to run a music hall programme for those whose careers were dipping. So perhaps it was fitting that the man who had once hoped to follow BF Dave to the top job in British politics should be forced to face his former friends in such a spot.
The Prime Minister himself slipped in just seconds before George started to speak, following a vain attempt to warm up the audience by MP Michael Fallon, recently promoted to the government for being able to find good things to say about the Tories on anything from Newsnight to Match of the Day. M Fallon had trotted out three company bosses to explain just how successful the government was proving and the conference, which loves bosses and success, ate it up.
Further attempts to deflect attention were made by the man who almost ran the Olympics, shortly to join the government via the House of Lords, who spoke of his desire to bring joined-up thinking to Whitehall. (He is not to be confused with Seb Coe, who did run the Olympics, and who will be brought out on Wednesday to ease the way into the PM’s speech.)
But it was still as chilly as a Saturday night out in Newcastle as the Chancellor started to speak. The conference is used to being warmed up by ritual denunciation of hate figures like Bob Crow or anybody else the Daily Mail dislikes but George remarkably chose one of their own to try and ease himself off the hook.
Former Tory PM Ted Heath was dissed to death as the Chancellor declared that giving into the unions and bending under pressure was not his way. Instead it was the toughness of the Tory PM who followed, Margaret Thatcher, that he intended to follow. Mentioning Mrs T at a Tory Party conference is usually a “get-out of-jail” free card, but even this brought George only desultory applause.
He managed to get them going a bit with a bash at those on benefits, but lost them again when he said the rich might have to pay some more. The audience clapped when he said no to a mansion tax but squirmed when he mentioned the poor. And they positively withered away when, for some reason, which will clearly only become obvious when the deals with the Lib Dems are done, he decided to pay them credit. “We could have done none not it without the coalition, ” he said and at least six people applauded.
There were several more low points in his speech as he reminded them that the hard times were not over by a long shot, that more cuts were needed and that the Hubble Space Telescope would be needed to see the sunlit uplands. By now, the panicked Chancellor must have thought all of his audience were either rolling their eyes or staring off into space as no-one had apparently realised the effect of sticking the big screen, onto which his twitching body was projected, 10 feet above his head. And so, underwhelmed by applause, he finally stopped rather than finished, wisely paused for only five seconds for the official standing ovation and left just before the big hook appeared from the wings to drag him off.