Why George Osborne now looks irretrievably damaged

The Chancellor is a politician unable to conceal his lack of control.

Whether it is attacking Britain’s “lazy” workers, blaming the double-dip recession on the rain or taking credit for Olympic gold medals, the Conservative Party appears to have lost any understanding how it is perceived or how to get its message across. Increasingly, it feels as if one man is the primary source of this slide.

George Osborne looks irretrievably damaged: caught between two jobs, Chancellor in the government, strategist for his party, and seemingly incapable of success in either. Aside from his destructive economic principles, his personal involvement in Tory spin has made him the most electorally unappealing politician of recent times.

The former chief whip Lord Ryder recently said of Osborne: “He isn’t a strategist at all; he is a tactician.” But if that is true – and it feels as though it is – tactics don’t seem to be his strong point either. There is now a chasm between a chaotic do-nothing ideology and the language used to promote the illusion of the exact opposite. In April David Cameron spoke of “redoubling his efforts” and “straining every sinew”. Such meaningless guff is designed specifically to mask the reality of economic libertarianism – doing nothing. In May Osborne said he was going to “concentrate” on the economy. In effect the party strategist admitted that those responsibilities meant he had taken his eye off the nation’s most pressing issue. Last month he trumped this by saying – presumably with a misguided eye on football populism – he was focused “110 per cent” on the economy. So the Chancellor also admitted he is not good with figures.

Then a week later Osborne managed to combine these two excruciating expressions, an occurrence so infuriating a super villain would have trouble repressing the urge to destroy planet earth after hearing it. “I think the government now has its opportunity to give its 110 per cent attention, effort and energy to getting the economy moving,” he said, undermining his own credibility in both roles. That Tory spin and strategy appears to be in such a mess was confirmed by reports that Osborne has been taken off duty for the next general election campaign.

This kind of panicky muddle is usually associated with the dog days of a second-term government. There is nothing positive to say other than “we are working hard”. This might wash with core Conservatives, but the drip-drip of disingenuous soundbites and aggressive, accusatory politics such as backbench MPs calling British workers “idlers” who need to be more like their Chinese counterparts will not work on undecided or swing voters and compounds every publicly held prejudice about the leading figures of the party.

Osborne’s relationship with Cameron has two things in common with that of Mycroft Holmes to his younger brother, Sherlock. The first is that like Mycroft, Osborne is rumoured to be the more intelligent. The other is that while Sherlock made the headlines it is said Mycroft merely worked for the government or at times “was the government”. Cameron has left the big ideas and the details to someone with a far weaker grasp of the public mood than himself. At his worst Osborne can appear a mixture of Patrick Bateman and a Greyfriars snitch, but he is too knitted in to Cameron’s project to replace so we are facing another three years of this, which is fine for the opposition but not so good for the unemployed, sick or needy.

Each new PR mistake exposes the vapidity of Osborne’s ideology and the government’s actions. It’s telling that the Conservatives somehow contrived to miss out on Olympic piggyback riding as their relationship to the Games began to look more and more like that of Cynthia Lennon’s to the Beatles train to Bangor in 1967.

During the Olympics the public made a connection between the joy and communion they experienced (or at least felt vicariously) and the values extolled throughout the Games on the ground, namely generosity of spirit, social co-operation and inclusiveness – and they instinctively knew that these have little to do with Osborne or his policies. Ironically the public came to associate these anti-Tory values with patriotism, the natural territory of his party. It’s as if the “spirit’ of the Games, however illusory, was felt to be the opposite of the spirit of the government.

The effect of this hugely significant public revelation is that Conservative attempts to claw back some initiative – such as linking the success of British athletes with Tory theories of competition – are doomed to failure. They are always out of synch.

The most instructive gaffe was to green-light the accusation by David Gauke MP – a treasury minister – that cash-in-hand payments were “morally wrong”. The idea that this cosmically hypocritical notion would play well in the context of the “out-of-touch posh boys” label is baffling (and shows how much the party misses Andy Coulson). But it all seems to be part of Osborne’s scheme for deflecting attention away from his responsibility for bad economic news. As well as attacking Labour, he has blamed the faltering finances on the weather, the Royal Wedding and plumbers. Somehow he thought it would be a good idea to alienate the self-employed – it’s not like they ever vote Tory is it?

When Osborne steps into the public arena directly the results can be disastrous, such as his self-generated and face-losing row with Ed Balls. The lip-curling (literally) resentment as he backed away from Balls’ counterpunch exposed a politician unable to hide his lack of control.

It is tough – and depressing – to decide which is more alienating: that the Chancellor of the Exchequer uses then re-uses a soundbite of innumerate nonsense or that he thinks some voters – any voters – are dumb enough to be inured to his failings through the use of a sporting cliché. Either way, it’s bad news for him, but even worse for the rest of us.

 

George Osborne now looks like a politician unable to conceal his lack of control. Photograph: Getty Images

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland