Tory MPs are losing patience with Osborne

The Chancellor's "disproportionate obsession" with Ed Balls comes under attack from his own side.

At one point in The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone sagely remarks: "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." It was this lesson that George Osborne, as so often in his political career, forgot this week. After his aides were forced to "clarify" that he had never alleged that Ed Balls was personally involved in the Libor scandal (rather that he had "questions to answer", a distinction without a difference if ever there was one), opinion is hardening among Conservative MPs that the Chancellor has overreached himself.

In a fascinating piece in today's Times (£), Sam Coates and Roland Watson collate a series of off-the-record barbs from Tory backbenchers. One MP describes Osborne's obsession with the alleged role of Balls and "Whitehall sources" in the scandal as a "red herring", adding: "There was no smoking gun." Another opines: "People want us to sort out the effing banks, not worry about what Ed Balls might have said four years ago.” Osborne's dual role as Chancellor and chief Tory strategist is also called into question (the increasing view among Tory MPs is that he isn't good at either job). One MP comments: "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time? You can’t run the sixth largest economy in the world with a mate-ocracy."

The irony is that Osborne's jihad against Balls was intended to restore his Budget-battered reputation. But the Chancellor's obsessive desire to pin the scandal on Labour meant that he missed an obvious truth: what matters most is who is seen to have the right policy now. In the eyes of the public, the Tories' refusal to sanction a judicial inquiry (something that enjoyed the support of 75 per cent of voters, according to YouGov) or to levy new taxes on the banks (Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, tells today's Independent that the Lib Dems were pushing for a 10 per cent surcharge on bankers' bonuses) has confirmed their status as the political wing of the City of the London. As so often, Osborne, the man charged with constructing a Conservative majority, has achieved the reverse.

One Tory MP said of George Osborne, "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time?" 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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