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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.