Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 16:03 UK

Osborne hopes honesty pays off

By James Landale
Deputy Political Editor, BBC News, Conservative Party conference

George Osborne
The Tories hope people will respect them for their honesty

Welcome to the politics of High School Musical.

George Osborne has reached deep into his children's DVD collection and borrowed unashamedly from the film's musical refrain: "We're all in this together."

He used the phrase seven times in his speech to reinforce the message, namely that everyone is going to feel the pain of reducing the deficit.

The richest public servants will see their pay and pensions curbed. Ministers will have their pay cut and frozen.

There'll be a one-off pay freeze in 2011 for all public sector workers, apart from frontline forces and those earning less than £18,000.

The middle classes will stop getting child trust funds and child tax credits. Millions of us are going to have to work a year longer before we get our state pension.

We are all, to paraphrase, in the deep doo-doo together and we will share the pain together.

This, as Sir Humphrey might have said, is bold. Perhaps even courageous.

Mr Osborne said he couldn't give the 2010 Budget now but he had a pretty good try, spelling out in all some £23bn in cuts over the first parliament of a Conservative government.

His calculation is that the public will thank him for his honesty and conclude that this man is a credible fellow with a credible plan to reduce the deficit.

Honesty, the Tories say, is the best policy. Unlike Labour last week, they argue, they could not bury their heads in the sand and pretend the problem was not there.

Trade-off

The defensive Tory argument is that all the bad news is a trade off for good news: public sector workers will have a pay freeze but that will save their jobs in the long run; we will all have to work for longer but our state pensions will be larger when we get them.

The risk is that Mr Osborne has created a quiverful of hostages to fortune. By setting out his plans for austerity, he has created large groups of voters who now know what a Tory government would mean for them and their pay packet.

Labour strategists will be crawling all over the detail, preparing to tell older voters how much longer the Tories want them to work for their pensions and telling others how much the Tories will cut their pay.

The Conservatives counter that they can win this argument, by showing Labour to be unwilling to take the tough decisions needed for the time.

The Shadow Chief Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC's World at One: "The truth is not a dangerous strategy, the truth is what the British people deserve."

Character questions

Such then is George Osborne's gamble. This debate, he said at one point as he attacked the prime minister, is about character as well as policy. And he is right.

This speech was also about Mr Osborne's character, an attempt by the shadow chancellor to prove to the nation and to the City of London that he has the ideas and the courage to take Britain out of the recession.

There have been doubts from some in the past.

Mr Osborne criticised the chancellor and the prime minister but was unusually restrained, not mentioning his bete noir Lord Mandelson once despite the business secretary's "boy George" jibe last week.

The aim was deliberately to show Mr Osborne more as a chancellor-in-waiting than his more traditional role of political attack dog.

So George Osborne hopes he'll be seen in sitting rooms and board rooms as a tough shadow chancellor who is taking tough decisions and risking unpopularity to do what is right and necessary.

What he doesn't want is to become is a John Smith mark two - the then Labour shadow chancellor who talked about tough choices in 1992 and was thanked for his honesty by the public with humiliating defeat at the polls.

The shadow boxing over spending cuts has finished. The real fight has begun.



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