Will the real Shadow Chancellor please stand up?

Philip Hammond launched Conservative plans for public service reform on Friday. The announcements received some press coverage, yet one of the most interesting aspects of the morning appears to have been ignored.

Luckily Westminster Village was part of the packed audience at the Policy Exchange event, because the Shadow Chancellor did something very interesting. To our reporter it almost sounded like an admission of his limitations. It might even have been an acknowledgement that the heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy may not be entirely suited to the role of Chancellor-in-waiting.

The previous day an invitation had been sent to the great, the good, and us, announcing that the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury would be launching Tory plans to ‘do more with less’ at the right-wing think tank. The invite added that George Osborne would be introducing Mr Hammond.

Intrigued at the prospect of the Shadow Chancellor playing a bit-part role in a launch designed in part to overshadow leaked reports of the government’s work on the issue, we went along – curious to hear what the Boy George had to say.

Sweeping into the room Osborne took his place at the podium and provided us with a short summary of his conference speech. Again. Thankfully there was no repetition of the Disney-lite catchphrase reminding us how “we’re all in this together”.

Usual spiel over with, the Shadow Chancellor had a complaint to make. Labour, he said, had completely downgraded the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury during their time in office. All of this would change under his reign, he pledged.

To what extent, we wondered.

Well, George told us, Philip Hammond would be at the heart of the Treasury. His role would be “one of the most important” in government. A quick grin and George took his place in the front row to allow Philip cover what mattered most after the buzzword-filled opening. The detail.

So had George admitted what we presumed all along? That he would be the one holding the red box and grinning inanely for the cameras whilst Hammond poured over the figures and hatched plans to restore Britain to more halcyon times.  

The speech was somewhat light on specifics beyond the ‘transparency, efficiency and culture change’ the party pledged to implement. The biggest announcement was the establishment of a Shadow Public Services Productivity Advisory Board which sounds more than a little similar to the PSA that Thatcher abolished.

Hammond also made some rather lofty claims that Labour had wasted £60bn a year on the public sector which conveniently ignored the state it had been reduced to by 1997.

Regardless of the issues we have with the content, what was more interesting was Hammond himself. He spoke with a confidence and competence that Osborne has yet to demonstrate.

Despite protests that he would never write Osborne’s budget for him, a telling moment followed. Using a rather stretched metaphor, he announced that he saw his role in the next Tory government as that of “ensuring that the machinery in the engine room of government is calibrated to deliver a continuous stream of productivity improvements”.

A convoluted way of telling us he was the power behind the throne? Judging by Friday morning’s performance it appears so.

Of course George Osborne’s credentials have been called into question on numerous occasions. He has also been accused of retaining the job either because of his close friendship with David Cameron or because of the sway he holds within the party due to his vast wealth and useful contacts.

There are even some who argue that Hammond is preparing to do the real work at Number 11 whilst Osborne merely ratchets up his rhetoric. And for the first time both men appear to have tacitly acknowledged there is more than a degree of substance to that.

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