Alastair Meeks says George Osborne’s star is dimming

Alastair Meeks says George Osborne’s star is dimming

Ozzy Pose

What the Chancellor should do if he wants the top job

The last few months have not been good for George Osborne.  When he rose to give the last budget in July, he looked like a man ready to take over the top job.  Following the general election he had been appointed First Secretary of State, recognising his place as second among equals.  He had carved out a distinct policy agenda of his own within government on the northern powerhouse.  The economy was looking sound and the opposition was nowhere.

Since then, the Chancellor has had a succession of mishaps, some self-inflicted and some external.  The prospects for the economy look much less certain, thanks largely to turbulence elsewhere in the world.  He has been forced to retreat on two separate measures trailed in that budget: first, he had to give up on the idea of cutting tax credits; next, he has been forced to scale back his ambitions to reform the taxation of pensions.  Finally, he has been identified closely with the Remain campaign, accused of doffing up backbenchers toying with supporting Leave, thus alienating a large part of the electorate for choosing the next Conservative party leader.

As a result, he finds himself with three connected problems with numbers.  First, the nation continues to run a substantial deficit which he needs to close – it is still forecast to be 3.7% for this tax year and 2.2% for the next tax year.  Secondly, he needs to close the deficit using measures that will command majority support in the House of Commons, yet with a majority of just 12 he has already found out twice that he cannot rely on the discipline of enough Conservative MPs to force through either unpopular spending cuts or unpopular tax rises.  Thirdly, any attempt to close the deficit by taxing the middle classes will damage his chances with the Conservative party electorate still further.

So what should George Osborne do?  Let’s put to one side the fact that he has the second most important job in British politics and assume that the only thing he cares about is securing the most important job in British politics.  What should George Osborne do to maximise his chances of securing the crown?

George Osborne is one of Britain’s most visible politicians and very much a known quantity:

  • He’s not got a particularly likeable persona, seeming cold and arrogant
  • He is widely thought to be competent
  • He is also widely thought to be clever
  • He is seen as posh and metropolitan
  • He is assumed to be ambitious
  • He lacks the common touch

None of this looks likely to change at any point before he steps down from the front rank of politicians.  If George Osborne does stand for the leadership on David Cameron’s retirement from office, he will not win by campaigning on his winsome personality.  George Osborne’s popularity waxes and wanes with the performance of the economy and the measures that he proposes as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  He represents competence rather than charm.

There is not too much he can do to change this and nor should he try.  George Osborne is apparently a very self-aware politician, keenly aware of his limitations.  It does beg the question whether he really wants to be Prime Minister in the first place.

But let’s assume he does.  He’s never going to be able to compete with Boris Johnson, for example, on charisma or likeability.  He should instead work on reinforcing the public’s perception that he has breadth and depth of vision.  All of his putative rivals are going to struggle to match him in those areas.

What this means is simply that he should do his day job to the best of his ability.  It is not in the nature of the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer to be taking popular decisions year in year out.  In all likelihood, the election for next Conservative leader will not be for some time.  If he constantly works on the basis that his next action is going to be uppermost in the minds of Conservative party members when choosing the next leader, he is going to make some terrible decisions that won’t help him get the job anyway.  He might just as well do the right thing and hope to get credit for being far sighted in due course.  Sometimes the best strategy is simply to do your job professionally.  This is one of those occasions.

Rather than chasing popularity, he should be making a great show in the budget of being aware that he is taking unpopular decisions and insisting that his party back him in making these difficult but necessary choices.  He should stop arguing that £4 billion of cuts are loose change.  He should start being very straight with the public about any pain that needs to be inflicted.  If he can find a form of words to hint that he might be aware that he is damaging his chances of taking over as leader in order to do the best that he can for his country in his current job, so much the better: self-sacrifice always goes down well, especially if it can be contrasted with others transparently acting in a self-serving manner.

Then he should go out and campaign hard for Remain.  He’s already firmly tied in his party’s imagination to the Remain camp and by far his best chance of taking the top job arises if Remain wins well, so he should take the opportunity to show his campaigning acumen.  David Cameron is fighting hard to ensure that he is not left as a lame duck.  George Osborne should follow his close friend’s example.  Sooner or later, leaders have to lead.

Alastair Meeks

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