16 March 2015

George Osborne, 43¾, has finally found his mission


He was booed at the Paralympic Games – in front of his children – but his economic record is now the Conservative Party’s biggest electoral asset. He promised austerity but repeatedly missed deficit targets and has presided over a massive increase in government indebtedness. He defended Plan A against allcomers but pursued a semi-Keynesian Plan B. He sees himself as the man in the hard-hat and hi-visibility vest, renewing the nation’s infrastructure, but he has cut capital spending. He has a reputation for being hard-hearted but has cut the police and defence budgets while increasing pensions, overseas aid and health spending. He, more than David Cameron, brought Iain Duncan Smith into government but has repeatedly resisted the Welfare Secretary’s reforming mission.

He is supposedly the great liberal of the government, representing the future of conservatism but nearly all of his economic policies have favoured the old. He is the man that Liberal Democrats profess to hate in public but they find him the consummate professional in all coalition dealings – essential for getting anything done. He is seen by the public as much colder than David Cameron but in private he’s the much more sociable of the two.

He is the man constantly plotting to destroy the Labour Party but has better relations with many shadow ministers than most of his Tory colleagues, including with Ed Balls. He is in many ways the most flexible of politicians – bending his philosophy to suit the circumstances of the day – but is a devout foreign policy interventionist and a steadfast friend of Israel. But in one thing above all other things, there is consistency: he’s the most fascinating member of the coalition and – as he prepares to deliver his sixth and possibly final Budget – he’s the most powerful Chancellor of modern times.

He’s been called many things since he walked into Number 11. The submarine Chancellor – because of his public invisibility during the early stages of this parliament – only rising to the surface for great and defining set piece occasions. Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome called him the octopus because of the way his tentacles stretch across Whitehall, the parliamentary party and Westminster media – installing and cultivating “Friends of George” (FoGs). But Janice Turner, my colleague at The Times, found the most evocative description when she profiled him last December (my emphasis):

“Approaching St Pancras, Osborne frowns out of the window. “One of these,” he says, “is the Francis Crick building, a medical research institute, the first thing we approved when we took office.” Down on the concourse, he points to a half-built skyscraper. “There, that’s it,” he says, with satisfaction. And I realise this is how he wants to see himself in the story, striding off back to the Treasury with his brown government box, a man of glass and concrete, if not human hearts.”

Exactly right. He now does have a view of himself – of how he fits “in the story”. After many years of holding very different positions – supporting flat taxes and other dramatic reforms, for example, before then matching Labour’s spending plans – he has reached a point where he seems comfortable with himself and has a defined governing philosophy. He is “the man of glass and concrete” – determined to be associated with investment in science, the greatest investment in the railways since Victorian times and, most politically potent, the Northern Powerhouse. He told the Financial Times recently that he sees himself as a mix of Lawson and Heseltine but, in reality, he’s increasingly all Heseltine. He’s comfortable with a government of grand projects. Crossrail, HS2, HS3, “Devo Manc”.

If he is still Chancellor after May expect him to add a major expansion of Gatwick or Heathrow to that list. Perhaps a new generation of garden cities? Ten years after he became shadow chancellor it might seem odd that he’s only now finding definition but he was just 34 when he became the Tories’ Treasury spokesman. He’s held the brief during economically momentous times. The world has evolved and so has George Osborne.

No one really knows if he’ll become prime minister one day. I think it very unlikely. That private warmth does not come through on the television but there is no doubting that his ratings have improved since 2012. If David Cameron loses the keys of Downing Street to Ed Miliband in 50 or so days’ time, George Osborne’s leadership ambitions will be lost, too. There’ll be a massive internal reckoning inside the Conservative Party and a lot of blood on Notting Hill carpets. Osborne’s fortunes are tied umbilically to those of David Cameron. He has been involved in every key decision this government has taken and every Tory MP knows it – FoGs and unFoGs. Almost co-PM, he is as responsible for the rise of Ukip as David Cameron. He oversaw the political strategy that took more traditionalist, right-wing voters for granted and created the most significant split on the Right of British politics in the post-war era.

By the end of 2012 – the year of the omnishambles budget – the two young modernising men at the top of the Tory Party turned to Lynton Crosby for salvation. It was a defining moment in the parliament. Suddenly there were three people at the top of the Tory Party. Osborne was no longer Cameron’s decisive political adviser. Suddenly the Cameron and Osborne project – that had sought to be so different from the Conservative Party of the past and from conservative parties abroad – began to follow the most conventional of right-of-centre re-election strategies.

If the Tories win re-election George Osborne will have to decide whether to accelerate, consolidate or reverse the Crosbyisation of the Conservative Party. Michael Gove, who lost the education brief because of Lynton Crosby’s polling, wants a more inspirational conservatism – waging political war on behalf of the dispossessed. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is frustrated at the Australian campaign strategist’s insistence on silence about the NHS. With increasing self-belief Mr Hunt feels he can turn the NHS into an asset for the Conservatives.

Will the Tories under Cameron ever go back to that “Mohican period” when the prime minister was portrayed as a punky radical on the front page of The Economist? Or will the party be taken over by suffocating caution? It’s one thing to beat Ed Miliband with an off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter conservatism but there’ll be a more potent, post-Miliband Labour Party one day. George Osborne thinks his northern vision is essential to beating that new Labour Party. Will other Tory Cabinet ministers be given the freedom to be equally radical? George Osborne, due to be 44 on 23rd May, will be the man they need to persuade.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right.