Cameron is under ever-greater pressure to sack Osborne

A growing band of conservative commentators are calling for the Chancellor's head.

When David Cameron was asked in 2010 whether he could ever sack George Osborne, one of his closest friends and the godfather of his son, Elwen, he replied:

Yes. He is a good friend, but we’ve has that conversation a number of times over the past four years.

To be fair to George he said ‘If ever you want to move me to another job, it is your decision and it is your right’.

With an increasing number of conservative commentators calling for Osborne to be replaced as Chancellor in the forthcoming reshuffle, Cameron can expect to hear these words quoted back at him. Last month, Peter Oborne, the Telegraph's chief political commentator, declared that Cameron should "make an honest man of the Chancellor, and send him to Central Office ". On Saturday, the Daily Express's Patrick O'Flynn argued that Osborne should be axed as part of a latter-day version of Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives”. Today, the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh fumes that "Osborne has shredded his reputation and turned the Coalition into a lame duck administration" and argues that a "job swap with William Hague is the solution" (an idea first floated in yesterday's Mail on Sunday).

For now, there is no evidence that David Cameron is actively considering replacing his Chancellor. But the speculation over the latter's future is a mark of just how far his stock has fallen. He now trails Ed Balls by eight points as "the most capable Chancellor", and more Tory members are dissatisfied with his performance than are satisfied.

The most common charge now levelled against Osborne is that he can no longer continue to combine his duties as Chancellor with those as the Tories' chief election strategist. Ed Miliband seizes every opportunity to refer to him as "the part-time Chancellor" at PMQs because he knows that it is a view shared by many on the other side of the house. It was a matter of some debate in Conservative circles as to whether Osborne should have been appointed Chancellor in the first place. A significant number believed that he was better suited to the post of party chairman, where he would be free to plot and scheme the Tories' way to victory. The coincidence of the double-dip recession and the downturn in the Conservatives' political fortunes means that many now believe that Osborne should be forced to choose between his two jobs.

Any suggestion that Osborne will be replaced (as opposed to "should be") is wide of the mark. As Cameron's key political strategist (Osborne attends the daily 4pm Downing Street political meeting), he is likely masterminding the reshuffle. But that Cameron will soon be forced to insist that his Chancellor is doing "an excellent job" (if he has to say he is, he isn't) is indicative of his government's malaise.

David Cameron has previously said that he would be prepared to sack George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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