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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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.