The strange non-death of George Osborne

After leaving the political sick ward, the Chancellor is again being spoken of as a possible successor to Cameron.

This is an extended version of a piece in this week's New Statesman.

A year ago, George Osborne stood before his party's conference as a man fighting for his political life. The "“steady and sustained”" economic recovery he promised in 2010 had become a double-dip recession, and the Budget, with its tactless raids on pasties, pensioners, charities and churches, had destroyed his reputation as a strategic grandmaster. Conservative MPs privately joked that Osborne, the Tories’' chief election strategist, was a "“part-time Chancellor"” who “"wasn'’t good at either of his jobs"”. By 2013, they had signalled their intention to oust him if the economy failed to show signs of recovery by the time of the local elections. 
 
But when Osborne addressed Conservative delegates in Manchester on 30 September he did so as a politician reborn. The man who seemed destined to take the blame for Tory failure now seemed poised to take the credit for Tory success. With the possible exception of Nick Clegg, no other figure has enjoyed such a revival of fortunes.
 
Economic recovery was the prerequisite for Osborne’s political recovery. Having once appeared in danger of suffering a triple-dip recession, the economy is now expanding at its fastest rate in three years, while, courtesy of revisions by the Office for National Statistics, the double-dip has been erased from history. The Chancellor’'s Keynesian critics rightly protest that the economy is still 2.9% below its pre-recession peak (the US, by comparison, is 4.5% above) but in politics, trajectory is everything. Osborne began his speech by observing, “"At every party conference since the election, as we have gathered, the question for us. The question for me, the question for our country, has been: ‘is your economic plan working?’ They'’re not asking that question now.”" After three years of stagnation, he has been the beneficiary of low expectations. 
 
But growth alone does not explain his resurrection. Osborne has also fought back by displaying the political cunning that many Tories feared he had lost. His decision to hold an early Spending Review, outlining cuts for 2015-16, proved to be a masterstroke. It forced Labour onto his territory by prompting Ed Balls to concede that he would match Osborne'’s day-to-day spending limits and liberated the Tories to shift their emphasis from austerity to recovery. With more than a year-and-a-half to go until the general election, Osborne is not required to announce any further tax rises or spending cuts.
 
If the Chancellor has secured credit for the recovery, it is also because he has been seen to do so. Once known in Westminster as "“the submarine"” for his habit of surfacing only for set-piece events and retreating under water at the first sign of trouble, he has become one of the government'’s most visible faces. In the last year, he has made a series of high-profile speeches on the economy, taken the fight to Alex Salmond in Scotland, and even braved the world of Twitter. The morning after the government’'s defeat over Syria, it was the Chancellor who led the counter-offensive on the Today programme. 
 
All of this has led some to ask a question that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago: is George Osborne the next leader of the Conservative Party? The speech he delivered to his party’'s conference was the most prime ministerial he has ever given, reminiscent of the state of the nation addresses that Gordon Brown made in his pomp. In his peroration, Osborne declared: “"I don'’t want to see other nations pushing the frontiers of science and invention and commerce and explain to my children: that used to be us; that used to be our country. I don'’t want to look back and say I was part of a generation that gave up and got poorer as a result."” Rather than turning his fire on Ed Balls, he contrasted himself with Ed Miliband: “"I share none of the pessimism I saw from the Leader of the Opposition last week”", declaring: "What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country".” As well as referencing his children, he spoke of his pride at his parents who “"planned carefully, took a risk, and set up a small manufacturing company more than forty years ago.”"
 
Should the economic recovery propel the Tories to victory in 2015, Osborne will have a powerful platform from which to launch a future leadership bid. Among his existing assets are a loyal backbench following, a network of influential media supporters and a gifted staff that includes former Policy Exchange director Neil O’'Brien. 
 
The Chancellor’'s ascent is far from inevitable. A renewed economic downturn, or the implosion of the housing market, could wreck his reputation again. Defeat for the Tories at the general would force him, as well as Cameron, to leave the stage. But should the Prime Minister win against the odds in 2015, the sword of succession could yet fall on Osborne'’s shoulder. 
George Osborne delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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