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.
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.