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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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