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.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred