Is it really only Wednesday?

The past two days of accusations, counter claims and u-turns have left this observer feeling weary, questioning the abilities of press officers, but growing increasingly excited about the upcoming twists and turns in this campaign.

Whilst most of the country was only interested in a great British (Scottish?) triumph at the Australian Open; we were instead to be found spending our Sunday morning watching the Shadow Chancellor’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show. George Osborne insisted he was sticking to his guns and making immediate cuts to reduce the national deficit.

But it appears someone forgot to inform him that David Cameron had other ideas. Perhaps that trip to Davos really had been transformative.

For later that morning, appearing on the Politics Show, Big Dave wanted to reassure the public that his administration would not implement any “swingeing cuts”. So who had gone off script we wondered? Labour and the Lib Dems jumped on the conflicting messages, accusing the Tories of a u-turn.

We arrived into the office on Monday with news that Labour HQ were going to let their “James Bond” loose to capitalise on the Conservative confusion.

And so Lord Mandelson summoned the city’s hacks to Victoria Street for a round of Tory bashing. Expecting the usual assured performance, our suspicions were first raised when the press release for the event was released. It seems a few more talented press officers could be required at Labour HQ if the best title they could think of was: ‘Instead of bobbing around like a cork in water David Cameron should level with the British people – Mandelson’.

Not exactly snappy.

Liam Byrne and Yvette Cooper stood meekly at the side of the stage, before Mandy glided to the podium and addressed us.  Osborne and Cameron – or Laurel and Hardy as the dark Prince coined them – were guilty of confusion and delay, he warned. The Tories, he said, very slowly and with a strange glint in his eye, would “strangle the recovery at birth”.

Quite the phrase.

Then he went and ruined it. Because Mandy decided the hapless press officer who had coined the clunky phrase was worthy of a mention, and so he publicly called Big Dave “a cork”. Yes, a cork. Followed by a turn as Anne Robinson in which Mandy suggested Cameron remove “his weakest link” (Osborne obviously, do keep up). 

Not the greatest performance by the First Secretary of State. A little too hastily arranged we agreed.

But it had stung the Tories. They used Twitter to mysteriously announce they would be fighting back later that day. When asked what was happening, no one seemed to have much information.

Possibly because the ‘Labour cuts’ campaign they launched later that afternoon wasn’t exactly brimming with new ideas or too much detail.

More was needed. Philip Hammond was allowed do some interviews, but it was not enough.

George would have to go face his critics it was decided. So they sent him to the British Museum the next day to explain his ‘eight-point pledge’ on economic policy. He was going to make Britain a nation of savers, he told us. How? Well the detail would be sorted out later. He was going to invest in green technologies, high-speed rail and broadband. How would he pay for this? All would be revealed at a later date. Hmm. Okay.

Lord Stern was going to advise them he announced. Oh no, actually later that day he was at pains to point out he would not.

“Judge me against these benchmarks”, George cried. Perhaps if you provided us will a little bit more detail we could. If Mandy had seemed a little flat on Monday, the Boy George was positively prancing with nerves on Tuesday. Never the most convincing of public speakers, this turn was proving particularly difficult for him. With half of the Shadow Cabinet also in attendance, at one point he begged the press pack to ask them a question and give him a break. The scent of blood was in the air and poor George floundered as he sought to convince us there had been no conflicting message, no disagreement and certainly no change in direction.

So its been quite the interesting start to the week. A completely lacklustre performance by Mandelson but he still managed to outshine Osborne who is beginning to show the strain more and more as we edge closer to polling day. 

 Oh and the Lib Dems have not escaped unscathed either. Vince Cable’s reaction to the debacle was to suggest that Osborne’s benchmarks were “motherhood and apple pie politics”. Have the parties got any decent press officers between them?!

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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.