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.

Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).