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Dale’s Diary: A morning with George Osborne at the Not-OK Corral

Dale’s Diary: A morning with George Osborne at the Not-OK Corral

🕔27.Apr 2015

To Longbridge – the place in Birmingham where they used to make cars – to meet George Osborne, who is due to launch the Conservative election manifesto for the West Midlands, writes Paul Dale.

Representatives from the media are ushered into a room to wait for the Chancellor.

But this is no ordinary room. It is absolutely cavernous, capable of accommodating over 100 people comfortably, and completely empty apart from seven or eight of the cheapest, most uncomfortable plastic chairs that you can imagine placed in a circle.

We are in Seven House, an office block built by Longbridge developers St Modwen, but not yet let which is hardly the best metaphor to demonstrate that an economic recovery is underway in the West Midlands.

For one ridiculous moment I assumed this was where Mr Osborne would shortly sit among us to answer questions about the great issues of the day.

But come on, get real, we were merely in the holding area for the press. We were, it transpired, being “corralled” in the way that troublesome cattle are kept in a confined space to stop them running free and causing damage.

Two floors below us, Tory members lucky enough to be selected to have coffee and biscuits with the Chancellor are carefully ticked off a list of invitees and having armbands placed around their wrists to demonstrate that they are among the chosen few before being permitted to go upstairs.

Yes, a minor political event like this and armbands are deemed necessary. Clearly, no one is taking any risks that Mr Osborne will come across ordinary people, or even journalists, who might possibly ask him some awkward questions.

Meanwhile, back in the coral, the minutes are ticking away and the cattle are getting restless. Told sternly by Tory press officers to arrive no later than 8.45 am we learn that the Chancellor is not scheduled to speak until 9.30, and anyway is running late and probably won’t deliver his speech until nearer 10.

Eventually, we are ushered into a far smaller room where about 60 or 70 Tory members are sitting in a state of high excitement to hear Mr Osborne. We move from the coral to a “pen” which turns out to be seats at the very back of the room, safely away from the top table and the Chancellor.

Some opening remarks from St Modwen chief executive Bill Oliver are amusing, although I suppose unintentionally so. Oliver tells the audience that of course St Modwen, as a public company, takes no political stance, slight pause, but anything other than a Conservative government would risk wrecking the economic recovery. Geddit? Do you see what he did there?

Mr Osborne gave a short speech the contents of which were handed to local newspapers the night before, and said little of any interest apart from a renewed attack on the SNP and Labour (coalition from hell) and some comments about West Midlands devolution (my door is open).

He easily batted away three or four questions from the media, and that was that.

It was all very much in-keeping with the way this election is being run. Everything is sanitised with leading politicians rarely meeting real voters for fear that they might end up saying something they later regret.

Labour is just as bad. Ed Miliband visited Nuneaton the other day, a constituency Labour has to take from the Tories if the party is to win enough seats for an overall majority. Ed was unveiling some new election posters. The chosen location? A sports ground well away from prying eyes, rather than the town centre where Mr Miliband would have encountered plenty of people who might not have been entirely sympathetic to his cause.

The story of this election is the rigid determination of the Conservatives and Labour to stick in their comfort zones, no matter what, to the few themes they think are most likely to attract votes.

For the Tories it is the economy and the claim that a high-tax high-spend Labour would wreck the recovery and take us back to square one, coupled with a blood curdling vision of a Lab-SNP pact with Nicola Sturgeon bullying poor old Ed into a return to a 1980s-style hard left nightmare.

For Labour it is the NHS, clearly not safe in the hands of the privatisation-mad Tories, and an end to the Chancellor’s austerity programme which it is claimed has been wrecking public services for ideological rather than economic reasons.

The upshot of this approach is that there have been few serious gaffes so far although David Cameron mistaking West Ham United for “his team” Aston Villa was hilarious. They do play in similar colours, bit it is odd indeed for a supposed football fan to drop such a clanger.

There’s certainly been nothing on the scale of Gordon Brown’s encounter with “that bigoted woman” when he came across Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy in the 2010 General Election. Mr Brown, it should be remembered, encountered Mrs Duffy as he tried to get into his car having given a television interview and forgetting to remove a microphone from his jacket lapel. Not much chance, I suspect of anything like that happening to Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband.

Boris Johnson unscripted on the Andrew Marr show yesterday demonstrated quite brilliantly why the two main parties want to keep a lid on, to be kind, eccentricity. The mayor of London’s sweaty, fist-jabbing attempt to highlight Ed Miliband’s supposedly privileged background – they attended the same infants’ school – rebounded and ended badly for Boris with Ed’s killer blow “well, we didn’t go to the same secondary school”.

It’s all a far cry from the 1983 General Election when I and a score or more of other journalists and television camera crews followed Michael Foot around Banbury market. By the end of a chaotic half hour Foot had managed to severely embellish the Labour manifesto, already dubbed the longest suicide note in history, by promising to abolish prescription charges. Those were the days.

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