Tory MPs are losing patience with Osborne

The Chancellor's "disproportionate obsession" with Ed Balls comes under attack from his own side.

At one point in The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone sagely remarks: "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." It was this lesson that George Osborne, as so often in his political career, forgot this week. After his aides were forced to "clarify" that he had never alleged that Ed Balls was personally involved in the Libor scandal (rather that he had "questions to answer", a distinction without a difference if ever there was one), opinion is hardening among Conservative MPs that the Chancellor has overreached himself.

In a fascinating piece in today's Times (£), Sam Coates and Roland Watson collate a series of off-the-record barbs from Tory backbenchers. One MP describes Osborne's obsession with the alleged role of Balls and "Whitehall sources" in the scandal as a "red herring", adding: "There was no smoking gun." Another opines: "People want us to sort out the effing banks, not worry about what Ed Balls might have said four years ago.” Osborne's dual role as Chancellor and chief Tory strategist is also called into question (the increasing view among Tory MPs is that he isn't good at either job). One MP comments: "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time? You can’t run the sixth largest economy in the world with a mate-ocracy."

The irony is that Osborne's jihad against Balls was intended to restore his Budget-battered reputation. But the Chancellor's obsessive desire to pin the scandal on Labour meant that he missed an obvious truth: what matters most is who is seen to have the right policy now. In the eyes of the public, the Tories' refusal to sanction a judicial inquiry (something that enjoyed the support of 75 per cent of voters, according to YouGov) or to levy new taxes on the banks (Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, tells today's Independent that the Lib Dems were pushing for a 10 per cent surcharge on bankers' bonuses) has confirmed their status as the political wing of the City of the London. As so often, Osborne, the man charged with constructing a Conservative majority, has achieved the reverse.

One Tory MP said of George Osborne, "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time?" Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.