Sketch: Stormy weather for Cap’n Osborne

Another year, another stormy weather cliché. Can't politicians come up with anything more original than that?

By Alex Stevenson in Manchester

The sun is shining in the unseasonably warm north-west. Politics is taking it easy. You'd have thought, judging by the laughing, happy smiles on the faces of Conservative delegates, that all is well with the world.

How very different to the bleak picture painted by the chancellor in his speech this lunchtime. Not for the first time he opted for the nautical theme, presenting himself as the gruff skipper of the Good Ship Economy riding out the tempest. "Together we will ride out the storm," he said. At least twice more he referred to the "storm". When, as thesaurus enthusiasts will appreciate, he could equally have referred to squalls, gales, hurricanes, typhoons or even blizzards.

Osborne's audience did not seem cowed by the grave situation he outlined. They laughed heartily whenever the chancellor mocked his shadow Ed Balls, and – astonishingly – the Conservative communities secretary. "Economic adviser to Gordon Brown – that's not something I'd put on my CV," Osborne sneered. This was about as impressive as being "personal trainer to Eric Pickles".

Pickles, who would walk home in a contest for the biggest waistline in the Cabinet, had just become the victim of yet another fat joke. It was supposed to be affectionate, but just seemed a bit like the stuff of the playground.

I had overheard someone talking about Osborne as future leadership material before his speech. This may be why I thought his treatment of the only two Tory colleagues more senior than him, William Hague and David Cameron, a little strange. Osborne lauded Hague to the rooftop for the disastrous general election campaign of 2001, when the former leader took his party to a second landslide defeat. But he did so saving the pound, prompting massive applause from the conference ten years later. By contrast all Cameron had done was become prime minister and form a historic coalition government. The PM strained to keep his face composed as he received applause distinctly inferior to that of his 'deputy in all but name'.

Not that there was any question who was the boss. Cameron had received a semi-standing ovation just for taking his seat. Quite a contrast to last year, when he was seated anonymously somewhere in the audience. And a contrast, too, to Osborne's rather awkward response to the firm adulation displayed on his arrival and departure to the podium. He approached the lectern haltingly, dragging himself forwards as if he wanted to prolong the clapping. At the end, he stood back looking thoroughly pleased with himself. But then there was something endearing about it, a sort of 'look what I did, mother' charm to it. Very different to the hostile, twisted, sneering Osborne of previous years.

There was subtlety here, too, with complex messages being sent to the collective Tory brain. On Europe, and the ongoing slow-motion car crash of the eurozone debt crisis, Osborne played into the hands of the eurosceptics with abandon. "Our European neighbours plunged headlong into the euro without thinking through the consequences," Osborne railed. "Thank God Britain didn't join the euro!"

This helped pave the way for a broader move towards the centre ground. Those Labour delegates who booed Tony Blair in Ed Miliband's speech last week were also "booing the millions of voters who once turned to Labour because they thought Labour had changed", Osborne said. "To those people I say… the Conservative party will be your voice." There are some on the right of the Tory party who suspect David Cameron's moderate instincts are getting the better of him in coalition. With Osborne reinforcing the leader's message, Cameron's strategy just got reinforced.

And then there was the delicacy with which he approached the issue of tax cuts. "Don't think I don't think carefully about all the potential solutions, I do," he said, a little pleadingly, as he explained that temporary borrowing was as bad as temporary tax cuts. "You can't borrow your way out of debt." Sticking to his guns got firm applause, even if its implications were a little painful.

It was probably Osborne's best conference speech of recent years, constructed with all the balancing ingenuity of a tightrope artist. His best, that is, until he finished with a terrible cliché – a watery version of the sunlit uplands.

Osborne pledged to "move to the calmer, brighter seas beyond". Ugh! Not a very subtle metaphor, George. Despite what had preceded it, this came perilously close to inducing seasickness.