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 Osbornes 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.