When David Cameron was asked in 2010 whether he could ever sack George Osborne, one of his closest friends and the godfather of his son, Elwen, he replied:
Yes. He is a good friend, but we’ve has that conversation a number of times over the past four years.
To be fair to George he said ‘If ever you want to move me to another job, it is your decision and it is your right’.
With an increasing number of conservative commentators calling for Osborne to be replaced as Chancellor in the forthcoming reshuffle, Cameron can expect to hear these words quoted back at him. Last month, Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, declared that Cameron should “make an honest man of the Chancellor, and send him to Central Office “. On Saturday, the Daily Express’s Patrick O’Flynn argued that Osborne should be axed as part of a latter-day version of Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives”. Today, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh fumes that “Osborne has shredded his reputation and turned the Coalition into a lame duck administration” and argues that a “job swap with William Hague is the solution” (an idea first floated in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday).
For now, there is no evidence that David Cameron is actively considering replacing his Chancellor. But the speculation over the latter’s future is a mark of just how far his stock has fallen. He now trails Ed Balls by eight points as “the most capable Chancellor”, and more Tory members are dissatisfied with his performance than are satisfied.
The most common charge now levelled against Osborne is that he can no longer continue to combine his duties as Chancellor with those as the Tories’ chief election strategist. Ed Miliband seizes every opportunity to refer to him as “the part-time Chancellor” at PMQs because he knows that it is a view shared by many on the other side of the house. It was a matter of some debate in Conservative circles as to whether Osborne should have been appointed Chancellor in the first place. A significant number believed that he was better suited to the post of party chairman, where he would be free to plot and scheme the Tories’ way to victory. The coincidence of the double-dip recession and the downturn in the Conservatives’ political fortunes means that many now believe that Osborne should be forced to choose between his two jobs.
Any suggestion that Osborne will be replaced (as opposed to “should be”) is wide of the mark. As Cameron’s key political strategist (Osborne attends the daily 4pm Downing Street political meeting), he is likely masterminding the reshuffle. But that Cameron will soon be forced to insist that his Chancellor is doing “an excellent job” (if he has to say he is, he isn’t) is indicative of his government’s malaise.