But he still wonâ€™t be prime minister
It takes a staggering degree of self-restraint and of confidence to know that you plan to increase the minimum wage by more than 10% and to choose to say nothing about it during an election campaign. It also shows a fine level of political judgement. Had George Osborne done so, he would have been accused of panicking and of allowing Labour to set the agenda. He probably wouldnâ€™t have been believed and if he was, the assumption would be that he was only doing it for votes. That would have undermined public confidence in Tory economic competence and that could have lost the election. Nonetheless, when the polls were almost all pointing to the election being lost anyway, it must have been tempting.
But the gamble not to has paid off handsomely. George Osborne has, in one Budget, gone a long way towards recasting the terms of the political debate. In rolling back tax credits, lowering the benefits cap, substantially increasing the minimum wage and increasing further the income tax thresholds, he is moving both fiscally and philosophically from a tax-and-distribute model of government to an earn-and-keep one.
What that means, particularly if the trend is continued over the parliament, is that far fewer people will be direct recipients of benefits from the state. Cutting the budget deficit was always going to mean a smaller state in some sense. Osborneâ€™s budget is proof that the Conservatives are intent on selling this as a positive good rather than a morally neutral necessity.
Indeed, this is one reason why Labour has had trouble countering his success, with the only attack line being that some are losing out, as if all must have prizes. In making the decisions he has, he is implying that some should lose out. He is reintroducing judgement about lifestyles as legitimate. And in disagreeing with him, Labour is in danger of being seen to side with the lazy and the feckless. Of course, there are other losers at the bottom end but without putting forward detail of their own, supporting one means supporting the other.
In any case, the analysis of whether those at the top, bottom or middle win or lose misses both the actual and the aspirational dynamics of life. When so many more people are finding work, thereâ€™s no guarantee that those who constitute the bottom 10% today will still do so in five yearsâ€™ time. Opportunity and social mobility have always been the not-very-secret Thatcherite weapons.
These kind of policies are political catnip to The Sun, which has indeed been hugely enthusiastic so far. Does that matter in an era of declining newspaper sales? Not so much for the impact it has directly as for what it represents. We are a long way from hugging huskies here; the Budget was about re-engaging with the working- (as opposed to benefits-) class at a values level. That gap in the electoral market remains open. UKIP did their best to fill it but have stuttered badly since May, while Labourâ€™s leadership has been uncomfortable about those kinds of values since Blair stood down (Blairâ€™s willingness to engage both with them and with The Sun may even be a cause of Labourâ€™s later conscious retreat from that ground). On Wednesday, Osborne effectively declared himself the heir to Thatcher, Lawson and Tebbit (and Blair).
Those names are not particularly popular now. No matter: theyâ€™re not the ones standing for election. Interpreting and upholding that political tradition will look different in any given era. And Osborne has earned the right to reach back out because heâ€™s secured the centre (though one of the ironies in all this â€“ and one reason for Labourâ€™s confused response â€“ is that adopting nominally left-wing policies has allowed him to shift the centre to the right). The return of steady growth, the rapid rise in employment and the reduction in unemployment, the return of wage growth and continuing low interest rates is, if not a utopian position, then at least one that can be sold easily enough to the floating voter.
And yet if he has leadership ambitions, all this will not be enough. He may be respected and trusted as chancellor. He may have good approval ratings. He may be a feared opponent (I suspect heâ€™s still not, though thatâ€™s Labourâ€™s mistake), or even a feared colleague. His skills of political strategy may be improving still further but all that does not a leader make.
What the leader â€“ the front man (or woman) â€“ really does need is charisma and likeability. Itâ€™s not essential: Brown, Heath and Chamberlain all provide counter-examples of PMs who had neither attribute, though none can be said to have made an outstanding success of the job.
The reality is that Osborne still has a grating voice and a punchable face. Thatâ€™s not his fault and nor is it fair â€“ but then life, and in particular politics, isnâ€™t fair.
He is also deeply disliked among many whoâ€™ve been on the wrong end of austerity. That too may not matter (Thatcher had millions who despised her and still won three elections), but itâ€™s not an asset.
The confidence and self-restraint that served Osborne so well over the rise in the minimum wage suggests that he knows all this. The breadth of the vision from this weekâ€™s Budget also demonstrates that in French terms, heâ€™s now prime minister to Cameronâ€™s president. As long as he can continue to deliver on the big picture, that will remain, whoever is PM. The temptation to go for the top job will no doubt be intense when Cameron stands down but we know now that Osborne can resist temptation.
As ydoethur noted yesterday, only three times since Disraeli has the favourite been chosen as Tory leader (Balfour, Chamberlain and Eden); again, no example offering a successful leadership. I see no reason for that pattern to change. The next Tory leader is very probably no more than a middle-ranking cabinet minister right now: it wonâ€™t be Theresa May, it wonâ€™t be Philip Hammond, it wonâ€™t be Boris Johnson. And it wonâ€™t be George Osborne.