It has not been a good day for George Osborne. The chancellor had to sit quietly while the Prime Minister had to defend his handling of an economy that went backwards in the last quarter. Another one of those in row, and we are officially back in recession, plunging into the dread double-dip, the recovery a dream rather than a reality.
In fact, it’s not been a good fortnight for Osborne. It was only 10 days ago that a number of senior Tories – including the Prime Minister himself – briefed that the chancellor’s flagship policy on child benefit would be rethought.
The chancellor is becoming used to his pledges and forecasts being unpicked. Labour leader Ed Miliband was only a little better than his usual underwhelming self in the bearpit of PMQs today. But the Labour leader was strengthened by repeating back to the chancellor a range of pledges he made on the economy that have failed to materialise. It doesn’t matter much if you come across as nasal and nerdy when you can shout at the chancellor that the economy has receded when he said it would grow; unemployment has risen when he said it would fall; and borrowing is £158 billion more than he forecast.
Yet, sat just a few inches away from Optimistic Osborne is the real engine room of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister. Cameron was faced with one of the trickiest gigs at PMQs he’s faced all winter – the economy in reverse, the empty words of his chancellor broadcast back to him, and a continuing Scottish problem which threatens to wreck the Union. Yet, given the impossible brief, I still gave PMQs to Dave on points. Occasionally, the Prime Minister gets riled, but his ability to offer a rat-a-tat riposte is reminiscent of that great debating machine, Tony Blair. It saves Cameron and, crucially for the Tory operation, it protects Osborne. The chancellor ought to be very thankful to his friend.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s when Blair was in his pomp, the media coined a moniker for the then Prime Minister. We called him Teflon Tony. Unlike any mud on the Prime Minister, the nickname stuck. Cameron is slightly different, sometimes he gets muddy. Yet he shrugs off the gloop pretty readily. Step forward Drip-dry Dave.
Take today, DDD had to munch some nasty numbers before dusting himself down and mocking Miliband for reciting his lines parrot-fashion without responding to the debate he is in. The reason that barb worked is because there is some truth in it. Yet even outside the heat of the dispatch box, the Prime Minister has developed a valuable knack of turning a negative into a major plus. The riots last summer should have been a disaster for the sitting Prime Minister. Not this one. Masterfully, he used the event to feed into his meme of a broken society left to rot by Labour. And throughout the debate on the economy, he has skillfully focused the blame on Labour, even when the government missed its own targets. So, even given today’s glum news, I wouldn’t expect a massive drop in support for the Conservatives. I predict they will stay afloat not because of Optimistic Osborne, but thanks to his friend and protector, Drip-dry Dave.