Having listened to and later watched the budget speech and subsequent opposition response, I felt that George Osborne looked a lot worse than he sounded and Jeremy Corbyn looked a lot better than he sounded. Allow me to attempt to explain.
I was on my lunch break yesterday, in the middle of Somerset, enjoying a lovely sunny day when Osborne began. He has a thin, weedy voice but he also has some good speech writers. Osborne had to deal with the potentially tricky problem that he had to explain why he had missed virtually all his targets and that many of his forecasts were wildly out of kilter. A sharp political tactician had to present failure as success and from where I was sitting, it seemed like he had carried it off. I did miss some excerpts through loud cursing, but that’s another story.
Corbyn, who even his friends admit is not the world’s finest orator, sounded like he was reading a speech written by someone else; one that he was seeing for the first time. He did not appear to be responding to any of Osborne’s points, instead just saying what he wanted to say. Corbyn stumbled once or twice, causing great hilarity on the Tory benches, and I genuinely felt empathy for him. It is not easy speaking in a hostile environment, especially when you are responding to brand new announcements. Given that Corbyn had given his own speech, which he would have read out whatever Osborne had said, I felt he had missed an easy target. Now I have actually seen the speeches, I have formed a completely different view.
Osborne came across as slippery, evasive and smug. Radio does not do justice to his smugness, something that he carries around in his facial expressions 24/7. Even if he was one of the great humanitarians of all time, he’d still look like a smug git. His words, seemingly effective with sound only, were less convincing when you saw him deliver them.
If Osborne had been attached to a lie detector, we’d have had an even more fun hour or so, but nonetheless he was entirely unconvincing. It was a performance, a script prepared and honed well in advance, riddled with cliches, half truths and outright lies. Moreover, the legions of Tories behind Osborne knew it too. They roared and bayed their approval, but somehow it didn’t look like all of them meant it. There was back-slapping from his pals at the end but again it looked like a performance. There was nothing spontaneous about it.
And then Corbyn. Having heard what I heard, and hardly watching with an open mind given my feelings about Corbyn, I feared the worst, but this was different from how I remembered. For one thing, Labour’s leader was looking very sharp in a new suit. I know it shouldn’t matter because the man is what he is, but he immediately looked a more substantial figure. Yes, his speech was pre-written but now I realised that it didn’t matter. Labour had a fair idea what was to come and Corbyn’s attack was passionate, intelligent and effective. There were no concussive blows, but by the end the Labour leader’s substance heavily outweighed Osborne’s empty rhetoric. Corbyn won hands down.
I had expected Corbyn to fall flat on his face, but he had remembered one golden rule: when you are replying to anything, particularly in politics in the media, whether it is another speech or a question, above all always make sure you say what you really want to say because these are the bits the media will pick up and the bits the public will hear and remember. Responding word for word to Osborne’s heavily spun presentation would probably have come across as disjointed and clunky. Instead, Corbyn did the right thing and he deserves credit for that.
Osborne looks damaged goods to me and it was good that Labour had decided to play the man as well as playing the ball. No stupid distractions like John McDonnell’s red book or post speech press briefing about the Falklands Islands instead of the issues at hand. Maybe, at last, someone at the top of Labour has got a grip.
I still don’t see Jeremy Corbyn as a man who can steer Labour to victory in 2020 but yesterday was a welcome change of direction. He looked and at times sounded the part whereas the chancellor of the exchequer suddenly looked like what he actually is, a scheming political tactician who has lost the Midas touch. The budget was a very bad one for Britain, but Corbyn’s improvement was potentially a much better one.