The Tories may have trailed Labour in the polls for three years (today’s YouGov poll has them six points behind), but they already appear to be measuring the curtains for another term in office. In this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth reports that George Osborne is planning to become Foreign Secretary if the Tories win the next election. The story has been dismissed as “ludicrous” by allies of the Chancellor but it seems eminently plausible.
As James writes, EU renegotiation would be the defining mission of a second term Cameron government and it would make sense for Osborne, the PM’s closest ally and the Tories’ most admired political brain, to lead it. Indeed, with hindsight, the Chancellor’s recent speech on the subject to the Open Europe/Fresh Start conference looks like an application for the job. The word in Westminster has long been that William Hague will not serve another term as Foreign Secretary if the Tories remain in office and it would be remiss of the party not to prepare a successor (although who would take Osborne’s place is another matter. Arise, Sajid Javid?).
Janan Ganesh, Osborne’s biographer, wrote last year: “Never a public performer, he is in his element in Brussels’ back rooms. One Foreign Office mandarin says he is more engaged with the EU than William Hague, the foreign secretary. Some of this is purest necessity – it is the Treasury’s burden to see off regulatory raids on the City of London – but he has taken to the work with surprising vigour.”
But while discussion has focused on the potential costs and benefits for the Chancellor of taking on the Brussels behemoth, it’s worth noting something else: Osborne would be the most hawkish Foreign Secretary in modern times. Alongside his fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, Osborne’s neoconservatism forms the core of his political identity. With the exception of Michael Gove, there is no cabinet minister more committed to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.
In an article for the Spectator in 2004, he described himself as a “signed up, card-carrying Bush fan” and retains close ties with the US right. During a Commons debate on the Iraq war in 2003, he praised Labour MP Nigel Beard for making “an excellent neo-conservative case for the action that was taken”. Again, with the exception of Gove, there was no greater champion of intervention in Syria.
In another Spectator piece, “While England Sleeps”, he wrote: “We did not choose the War on Terror it chose us. We could try to walk away from it now. We could distance ourselves from America, say the Iraq war was a mistake…But it would not save us. For remember the words of the Madrid bombers before they set out to kill 200 innocents on their way to work: ‘We choose death while you choose life.’ With people like that it can only be a case of them or us.”
As Foreign Secretary, Osborne would not determine Britain’s foreign policy (that remains the responsibility of Cameron) but he would help to shape it. Rather than acting as a brake on intervention, as the realist William Hague often has, the Chancellor would be an accelerator. At a time when the electorate and an increasing number of MPs (of all parties) are resolutely isolationist, it is worth considering what Osborne’s arrival at Kings Charles Street would mean for British foreign policy.