The New Statesman Profile - Francis Maude

Once hailed as a Tory prodigy, the shadow chancellor is now the invisible man of politics. Francis M

Every era has its chosen ones. Few tribes have prospered more in late-1990s Britain than the financial market operators of the City of London, and deep within the inner sanctum of Tony Blair's surprise chart-topping craft guild lies the US investment house Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. And few of Morgan's white-shirted demigods did as well in mid-decade as the bank's head of global privatisation, who earned - according to various estimates - around £500,000 to possibly £1 million a year, as he sped around the globe advising governments, giganto-corporations and often, seemingly, whole continents.

But, since 1997, Francis Maude - for the one-time plutocratic financier was none other - has been restored to parliament (after five years in the wilderness following the loss of Warwickshire North in 1992) and the Conservative front bench and handed the shadow Treasury brief. This development has brought unwelcome agonies, the latest a predictable roasting in Tuesday's pre-budget debate. Given the Tories' dismal poll ratings, he finds himself the first shadow chancellor in four decades whom no one reckons to have a chance of taking office. Moreover, Maude's pained features at despatch box and TV studio alike have been a creeping staple of the past 18 months. So painful did the spectacle become that some Tory friends felt it was almost worth having Gordon Brown off the recessionary hook than to let Maude suffer further in public.

"No great charisma, not a great orator," wailed one fellow MP - an otherwise fervent supporter. Even now, his public recognition level hovers at around a mere 6 per cent. One leading newspaper editor describes him as "irrelevant". Such matters are of toxic importance not only to the shadow chancellor, but also to a Conservative Party ravenous to regain its former stranglehold on the voters' economic trust. The recent CBI conference in Birmingham included cameos by a slew of leading Westminster lights, including Blair, Brown, Charles Kennedy, William Hague, Michael Portillo, Chris Patten, even John Selwyn Gummer. But no Maude. Where was the shadow chancellor? Not with business and Blair, it was confirmed. Why was he not needed? Because, said the CBI spin-doctors, they had enough politicians already.

Invisibility apart, a worrying aspect of Maude's recent output was his espousal at the conference of economic proposals in which few informed observers feel a politician of his intellect can believe. Many winced as he proclaimed that since January the European single currency had been outperformed by the Cuban peso. But those promises - first, a tax guarantee (that all taxes as a proportion of national output will be lower by the end of a Tory government, economic conditions apparently notwithstanding); and second, a planned Balanced Budget Act (that will legally bind a chancellor to unequivocal fiscal balance over the economic cycle) - have drawn little praise even from traditional Tory supporters such as the Daily Telegraph.

The possibly enormous spending cuts required by such a tax guarantee make his proposal, as Andrew Dilnot of the Institute for Fiscal Studies remarks, "very dangerous". Strikingly, not just the professional economists, but also Norman Lamont, Maude's ideological soul-mate, have argued cogently on the dangers of targeting a ratio of spending to GDP.

Of equally dubious value is the Balanced Budget Act proposal, intended to outbid Brown on prudential control of national finances. Parliament's inability to bind its successors over at least domestic legislation makes any such act merely symbolic. Like the earlier Rooker-Wise amendment (passed in the 1970s to safeguard the uprating of tax thresholds), any Balanced Budget Act, however worthy, would be subject, almost all agree, to instant demolition by any subsequent budget.

Maude's other misfortune, as Professor Charles Bean of the London School of Economics argues, is that Brown has mined the fiscally prudential seam of UK economic policy as far as is useful. Current debt levels are "not an issue". Financial markets are likely to find further measures largely irrelevant. Moreover, Maude's notion of a stabilisation fund to preserve the bounty of boom years for harder times (Maude's staff are vague about the details) is shown, by recent US experience, to be fairly bogus. The unmistakable clatter of political backsliding could be heard when I spoke to Maude's office about the package. There will, spokesmen say, be no "slash and burn" spending cuts. Nor would a Balanced Budget Bill immediately be introduced. It might "have to be phased in". It was, in any case, only a "frontrunner" among other possible schemes.

These humiliations could be simple artefacts of opposition politics. But Maude's talent makes his predicament seem especially tragic. His fortunes once had been so different; from the vantage point of youth, few futures could have seemed so neon-lit as that expected for the young Francis Maude, cerebral son of Angus, a former Tory minister, and Enoch Powell's literary collaborator.

Certainly Maude's star had burned brightly and early, as he prospered along the Tory party's crystal stair; graduating from Cambridge, the Bar and Westminster Council, he reached the Commons in 1983 on the brink of his 30th birthday. Another landslide entrant, Philip Oppenheim, described Maude as being clearly one of the "likely lads", alongside the likes of Michael Howard and Peter Lilley, already marked out for fast advancement.

He lived up to it, too. Alan Clark praised him in 1984 as "much the best of the PPSs [he served in the employment department for a year], sensible and quiet, but with a good mind and sense of humour". The gathering at which the young man shone was one "where very substantial quantities of drink were dispensed . . . whisky, brandy, port and champagne were all open and being poured". Years later, Maude "sparkled sensibly" at the Savoy "as Puligny Montrachet gave way to Beaune", although Clark also recalled the young minister near-blubbing when not given the recognition he felt he deserved in the July 1988 reshuffle, by which time he had been a government whip and a junior minister at trade and industry.

The Adam Smith Institute's Madsen Pirie says he is "one of the most intelligent people in parliament". Steven Norris describes him as "enormously shrewd" although, like John Maples, the shadow foreign secretary, far more effective on TV and in person than in large public arenas. All find Maude an attractive personality who, after a brother's death from Aids, became, as one ally said, "more aware of other lifestyles". Friends say he is a dedicated family man and father; with his wife Christina, he has five children.

But Maude's trauma is that the coming election is almost certainly his only chance to be chancellor - and time is running out. He has had some successes. Some trust has been regained on taxation. Evidence from MORI suggests that the party's EMU policy, should the euro become a dominant issue, could reap rewards (UK opposition to the euro's introduction increased to 57 per cent last month from 54 per cent a year before). But Charles Bean says that, largely because of the UK's continuing boom, "you can't say he's hit any home runs". In any case, as Roy Hattersley has observed, shadow chancellor is one of the worst jobs in politics, because your opponent in office has all the figures.

So why bother? Some speak of his great ambition. And if the plausible estimates of his Morgan salary are correct, it is hard to believe that someone who, over the current parliament, will have most likely sacrificed over £1 million in lost income - possibly much more - does not want the chance of high political office. Thus the protestations that he is an easy-going bloke who doesn't mind invisibility seem, well, implausible. The low recognition factors must rankle, the resulting dimmed prospects even more so. As for elevation, in the event of a leadership contest, the transfer of the franchise for the next Tory internal poll to the entire membership dooms his chances of the top job yet further. Given wide disparities in profile, senior Tory MPs feel that Ann Widdecombe and not Maude would be Michael Portillo's main rival, should the post fall vacant.

Despite his libertarian political theology (he once supported Nicholas Ridley when the latter pressed to deregulate motorway service stations, so they could ply beer to passing drivers), many Thatcherites have still not completely forgiven him for a perceived over-eagerness in 1990 to remove Thatcher from the second round of the leadership contest - thus clearing the way for John Major. It was under Major that he became financial secretary to the Treasury.

Some whisper darkly that such a technocratic opportunist as Maude would in fact lose little sleep, circumstances permitting, while introducing the euro. While he is largely excused for signing the Maastricht treaty, he is also remembered for his temerity in the Commons in 1991, when telling Thatcher to her face that there would be no referendum on the treaty he had negotiated.

Given predictions of the Tories' further electoral downfall, Maude could thus find himself among a group of expendable - and expended - frontline troops, like Red Army political divisions at Stalingrad, chosen to bear the brunt of enemy fire so that those behind can advance. Thought by most (but not all) to be safe as shadow chancellor until polling day, Maude would be unlikely to continue in the Treasury brief far into the tenure of a new leader.

As the Commons pummellings continue, the threat of being a well-bred nearly-man looms large. The crass catechisms uttered at Blackpool may ultimately, horribly, not have been worth it: a fate of being the Peter Shore (another decent but unlucky shadow chancellor) of the Tory party is in prospect. He must hate such indignities, yearn to be back at Morgan Stanley, in fine, intelligent company, yearn so painfully to be back amid all that spark and international excellence at the bank - but, but, oh, ambition . . . how it calls.

As Churchill said, politics is foul. It is definitely unjust. If the Tories do indeed lose, then Maude, displaced from the slipway to the job he appears to desire so much, will have many years in which to prosper yet further in investment banking. In the absence of strange political events in the next 18 months, there is also likely to be much time for this obviously most talented of men to ruminate on the world's many perennial unfairnesses.