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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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