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16 September 2016

George Osborne shows that he still wants to be prime minister

Theresa May was "the best person for the job of the candidates who put themselves forward," the former chancellor says. 

By George Eaton

Even had he remained in the Commons, David Cameron would never have spearheaded the defence of his political project. A former prime minister is constitutionally required to remain above the fray or be labelled “the incredible sulk” (as Ted Heath was). The alternative of self-censorship is similarly unattractive.

But the vanquished Cameroons have found a new leader: George Osborne. When he was sacked from the cabinet by Theresa May, some expected Osborne to retreat to a lucrative City career. But unlike Cameron (who he entered parliament with in 2001), the former Chancellor is going nowhere. 

Osborne has launched a new think-tank – Northern Powerhouse Partnership – devoted to the project that became his greatest political passion. May, he told the Today programme this morning, had a “bit of a wobble” (she pointedly referred to the need for a “proper industrial strategy” and avoided mentioning the phrase shortly after becoming PM). With May having since told MPs that she is “absolutely committed” to the project, Osborne’s new body is designed to ensure there is no backsliding. 

This was not the only point on which he rebuked May. Though he did not oppose the opening of new grammar schools, he declared that the “real focus” of reform should be “the academy programme transforming the comprehensive schools that most people in this country send their children to.” The “special share” taken by the government in Hinkley Point C would not, he said, “add any additional protection”. 

But Westminster’s Machiavelli has far greater ambitions than merely critiquing the government. He still, it appears, aspires to lead it. May was, Osborne said, “the best person for the job of the candidates who put themselves forward”. A certain former chancellor, he reminded us, had not. “I don’t want to write my memoirs because I don’t know how the story ends,” he mischievously observed. 

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Osborne is justly famed for his political escapology. After nearly losing his post in 2006 over the Oleg Deripaska affair, he prevented Gordon Brown calling an early election by pledging to cut inheritance tax. Having delivered the calamitous 2012 Budget (and been booed at the Paralympics), he helped the Tories secure a parliamentary majority and became the favourite to succeed David Cameron (a status he swiftly lost). 

Many concluded that Osborne long ago lost the last of his political nine lives. But aged just 45, the Chancellor has begun his quest to prove them wrong.