The truth about Gideon

Don't believe the hype: the Chancellor of the Exchequer isn't a political genius.

This morning, I took part in a discussion about George Osborne on Radio 4's Today programme with ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie. The media narrative says that the Chancellor's star is in the ascendancy right now. Montgomerie wrote a piece in yesterday's Times (£) in which he observed:

Less than 12 months ago, George Osborne's youthful inexperience and zigzagging judgements were among the principal explanations for why David Cameron didn't win a parliamentary majority. Today, the Chancellor's reputation has been transformed. If you listen carefully enough, people are whispering that he may be the next Conservative leader.

You're having a laugh, aren't you? He continues:

A year ago, the idea of "Boy George" as a future leader would have been unthinkable but doubts over Mr Osborne's ability to be a competent Chancellor are largely gone . . . Mr Osborne still struggles to connect with the public and, although voters may never really warm to him, they never warmed to Margaret Thatcher, either. They respected the Iron Lady and, in time, they may respect him if he fixes the broken economy. That is the hope of the loyal circle that surrounds him. Osborne-ites hope to convince commentators, MPs and the Tory grass roots first. This ripples strategy is slowly producing results. According to ConservativeHome polling, Mr Osborne is now more popular than Mr Hague with party members.

Tim's comment piece followed a glowing and lengthy profile of the Chancellor in the Financial Times at the weekend, in which the paper's political editor, George Parker, writes:

Even today, after ten months in office, Osborne is still something of an enigma. He gives few in-depth interviews and hardly ever talks about his family. Little is known about his extraordinarily central role to everything the coalition does. His team talk about maintaining "the mystique" of the office, but his low profile has also ensured that Osborne does not become the public face of the £81bn cuts programme.

"He's playing a long game," says one Treasury colleague. Osborne knows he is not loved by the public but, if he succeeds, he hopes to earn its respect. Conservative observers say he is "like a submarine", surfacing only to make strategic interventions when he has something important to say, then disappearing for weeks on end.

Parker adds:

At cabinet meetings, fellow ministers say that Osborne makes the expected interventions on the economy but that he is also the minister "for looking round corners". One says: "He can see the political fallout from any decision better than anyone. Sometimes, his contributions are hard to follow, but if you close your eyes and listen you can see the government's strategy coming into place."

It's a well-written and fascinating profile from Parker and the FT but, I'm sorry to say, I just don't buy it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer ain't the master strategist he is made out to be by his supporters and nor is he now a "prime minister-in-waiting". The media's newfound admiration for the Chancellor and the corresponding "cult of Boy George" just don't impress me -- for a range of reasons:

1) Osborne is a very clever and astute politician and is indeed his party's most important strategist; he was the Tories' campaign manager during last year's general election. But -- and here's something Tim should consider the next time he compares Osborne to Margaret Thatcher -- Thatcher managed to win general elections; the Tories, despite Osborne's supposed strategic brilliance, couldn't secure a Commons majority, even though they were facing the most unpopular prime minister in living memory and coming off the back of the worst recession since the Second World War. Osborne failed in his role as campaign chief.

2) He's described in the Parker profile as the coalition's minister "for looking round corners". Perhaps he needs to crane his neck a bit more, then, because he's not very good at it -- this is a government that has executed an array of hasty and humiliating U-turns, from the proposed sell-off of our forests to school sports funding to the appointment of the Prime Minister's personal photographer. Didn't the Chancellor spot any of these ahead of time? And, say what you like about Thatcher, but the lady wasn't for turning.

3) Osborne is praised for being a "political" chancellor but chancellors are judged on their economic -- not political -- legacies. Ask Messrs Lawson and Lamont. Or Tony Barber. And as Harold Macmillan remarked: "Events, dear boy, events." The question is: will Osborne's draconian cuts have a negative or positive impact on "events"? Will they rescue the British economy or imperil the "fragile recovery"? So far, the evidence suggests that they are doing the latter -- unemployment is up, inflation is up, borrowing is up and, crucially, growth is down.

4) Osborne's own political judgement has been suspect. In opposition, the shadow chancellor almost ended his own career when he went to war with Peter Mandelson over "Yachtgate"; Osborne is also the man who suggested to David Cameron that he hire Andy Coulson as his director of communications -- and we all know how that ended.

5) Returning to the Thatcher theme, the Iron Lady exuded calm and confidence; compare and contrast her performances under fire with Osborne's panicked and pale-faced reaction to the negative growth figures that were published in January. The Chancellor was lost for words, blaming "the snow" over and over again (16 times in a single interview). Politicians should be judged on how they behave in a crisis or when the chips are down.

6) Poor Gideon is crippled by the fact that he isn't just an ex-Bullingdon Club toff: 20 years on, he still looks and sounds like a Bullingdon Club toff. He is the real-life personification of the toxic "Tory boy" caricature, right down to his braying, sneering voice. Is it any wonder that the Tories spent £100 an hour on voice coaching for the shadow chancellor in opposition?

7) He might be popular with the press and his pals in the City of London but he has yet to win the trust or affection of the public -- and he is hardly likely to do so in an "age of austerity". As Parker concedes: "[I]t could be said that Osborne has built good relations with just about every group important to his future political success, except one: the electorate." The latest Ipsos-MORI poll shows the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, has approval ratings of 36 per cent while the Chancellor's are at 35 per cent. Almost half the public (45 per cent) are dissatisfied with Osborne's performance compared to just under a quarter (23 per cent) last year.

The Chancellor told friends before the election that he would be the most unpopular man in the country within six months. Thanks to the human shield that is Nick Clegg, that hasn't happened yet . . . but give it time. By the end of this parliament, I suspect Boy George will make Norman Lamont look like Barack Obama at his peak.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.