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21 January 2010

Target: George Osborne

Key to election -- for the wrong reasons?

By James Macintyre

At last Saturday’s lively Fabian Conference, during a panel debate featuring our own Mehdi Hasan, there was a presentation by Vinay Nair arguing that both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats should focus their election campaigns on the shadow chancellor, George Osborne. The slide-show presentation, which can be viewed on Liberal Conspiracy, was well received by the packed audience, with only a few arguing that such a personal campaign would backfire.

Now, LabourList has asked whether Osborne — who has today been told to pay back £1,936 in expenses claims — is being sidelined.

My hunch is that the more sensible Tory strategists are aware that the neo-Thatcherite shadow chancellor is not much of an attractive prospect to show off to the electorate in the run-up to the general election. There is, as Nair has said, just something about him. Besides, as Mehdi remarked at the Fabian event, most Tory members on the ground probably want the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke to be shadow chancellor — and certainly become chancellor if the Conservatives win power. David Cameron has even said that he would sack Osborne under certain circumstances.

However, I doubt that Osborne is under threat, not just because Cameron and Osborne are godfathers to each other’s children, but also because they were once — however implausible it may seem now — leadership rivals. Indeed, it is said that Michael Howard’s intention was to push Osborne and Cameron forward — in that order. There may not have been a Granita-style pact, but Osborne may be unsackable nonetheless.

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Furthermore, it is just possible that Cameron may choose to ditch Clarke after the election, having fed off his popularity during the campaign. It would, of course, be very unwise to do so, given Clarke’s unique experience in a shadow cabinet of little repute. But Cameron and Clarke do not instinctively share each other’s Tory politics, and the shadow business secretary, who has the power to do much damage to the Cameron project should he become disillusioned, is one to watch.