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Chancellor tries to lean into Labour territory

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Back when George Osborne was in office, the Chancellor’s speech at the Conservative Party conference was always a big event.

In part because back then (oh, all of two years ago) he was the Prime Minister-in-waiting, but also because he would always come to conference with a biggish story in his pocket.

Creating the Office for Budget Responsibility, freezing public sector pay, credit easing, delegating business rates to local authorities, “shares for rights” – all were unveiled at party conferences over the years.
It meant that, under the last government, the Monday of conference was a big moment: not just for political wonks but for every member of the population.

Image: Osborne saved big policies for his headline address
It wasn’t just that the speech would be on the front pages that day. It would dominate the news cycle for a whole day, or two days, or three days: after all, those policies would potentially make a difference to everyone’s pockets.
Fast forward to today and Philip Hammond’s speech at conference.
Now, it would be unfair to accuse the Chancellor of not having policies in his speech. There was a bit more money for road and rail investment in the North – a wee bit more for Help to Buy.
But in the grand scheme of things these were pretty piddling things. Far more interesting than what was in the speech was what wasn’t in it.
There was reference to how complex the process of Brexit would be, but little more detail (beyond the PM’s recent speech) on how it would be executed.

Image: Anti-Brexit protesters have demonstrated outside the conference
There was acknowledgement that the young are finding it increasingly difficult to get on the housing ladder; that they are struggling to make enough money.
Mr Hammond talked about problems with the apprenticeship levy, about weak productivity.

In many senses, the speech was a sensible analysis of some of the issues facing the UK economy. But there were no hints as to what the solutions would be.
To some extent, this may be because we are fast closing in on the new Autumn Budget, meaning the Chancellor is particularly reluctant to spill the beans about any new policies currently being costed.

Image: Hammond may be holding back big announcements for the Autumn Budget
In another sense, it is a mark of the man, who would rather legislate in Parliament than on the conference floor.
All the same, perhaps the most striking thing about the speech was the degree to which the Tories are now attempting to lean into traditional Labour territory.
In the Osborne era, talking about levels of inequality between areas and generations would rarely have featured. There would have been fewer concessions on tuition fees, or on housing. Less acknowledgement that there was a real problem in society.

Image: The Chancellor leaned towards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour
But Mr Hammond referred to all of the above in his speech.
Clearly, for all the bluster, the Tories are deeply concerned about Labour’s polling lead and about the fact that last week’s Labour conference was so much more electric than usual.
As for what they actually plan to do about it: not so much.
But these are different times and this is a different Chancellor. The question now is whether he is able to start addressing those problems or whether he will shy from them.

Source: SKY