George Osborne: The Pantomime Villain Who Is Now Looking for Love

When George Osborne delivers his Budget on Wednesday he will do so from a position of unassailable strength.

Not since Gordon Brown in 2001 has a Chancellor so revelled in his own dominance and his opponent's weakness and discomfort.

The Conservatives are in thrall to him, not least because he has used his office to promote acolytes to every corner of government.

The opposition, which once dismissed him as an aristocratic fop, now holds in him grudging respect bordering on fawning capitulation.

Osborne is in this position because of a hefty dose of luck and a large degree of political masteryThere is much to admire about the shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie, who is one of the more decent and underrated inhabitants of Parliament, but you suspect that even he will accept when he replies to the Budget that the best a middleweight can achieve against a heavyweight is to earn a few points for technique.

Osborne is in this position because of a hefty dose of luck and a large degree of political mastery.

The landscape he surveys is of his own crafting. The widely-held belief that Labour caused the economic crash and is therefore the architect of the financial woes which beset this country from 2008 is built on a conceit but it is one, thanks to the opposition's persistent failure to counter the argument and the government's unwavering insistence on peddling it, which has been bought wholesale by the public.

Another deception was to convince the voters and the markets that the last five years have been a model of economic consistency. Because Osborne was wily enough never to announce the change of course few noticed that he toned down the austerity for a modest version of Keynesianism.

Not that Mr Osborne enjoyed being pantomime villain, but it was a political expediency The reticence about this u-turn was not simply to hide any political blushes but also because it would have damaged the carefully-crafted image of a man willing to sacrifice his popularity for the sake of fixing the economy.

Not that Mr Osborne enjoyed being that pantomime villain of the Coalition Government, not least being booed at the Paralympics, but it was a political expediency used to convince voters that he was prepared to make supposedly tough decisions.

We shall, no doubt, see more of those tough choices this week when, although the economy is improving, bogus comparisons with Greece will be drawn to justify further welfare cuts.

This is the meaner side of Osborne. Artifice is created to camouflage the crueller nature of his policies. He has proclaimed the Tories to be the workers' party in a shameless land grab into Labour territory while at the same time drawing up legislation which will constitute the most restrictive employment laws of any advanced economy. Another example has been the increase in the income tax threshold, used as evidence he's helping the poor, while doing nothing for those too poor to pay tax.

Even his opponents confess that their anger at Osborne's plans is matched only by a sneaking admiration for his audacity.

One newly elected Labour MP told me that watching the Chancellor at work had been a masochistic highlight of his first month in Parliament.

There has also been a noticeable shift in power from David Cameron to his deputy.

When the Prime Minister had the misfortune to brief against himself at the G7 summit in Germany on whether ministers would be free to follow their consciences during the EU referendum campaign, it was an intervention from Mr Osborne which reportedly steered the Prime Minister back on message (though only after he had reprimanded journalists for faithfully reporting what he said).

After the melodrama of the Blair Brown years, relations between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are supernaturally cordial to the extent that Mr Cameron has all but anointed his successor by making him First Secretary of State.

That Mr Osborne seeks to be Prime Minister is in little doubt given the way he has started to remodel his image and build around him a team of well-regarded advisers, not least the former Daily Mail political editor James Chapman.

Whether others believe he is the right person for the job is a more contentious question. The haircut maybe Caesar's but his political modus operandi comes across as more Cassius's. Regardless of his mean and hungry look, he definitely thinks too much.

Those close to Osborne insist he is aware of his limitations

Of all the politicians I have met in the last 20 years only two others - Peter Mandelson and Michael Portillo - have been his equal at reading the contours of politics.

You cannot help but notice that they were both flawed, with an uncanny ability to divine the machinations and motivations of everyone on the stage except themselves.

Those close to Osborne insist he is aware of his limitations. He understands the challenge of convincing his party and voters to overcome any qualms about electing another privately-educated leader.

To counter this we have seen a succession of carefully staged images, some verging on the ridiculous, of the Chancellor visiting workplaces, more often than not in a hi-vis jacket.

Yet we are no closer to knowing the real personality of Osborne, in part because his caution has limited media access. As he enters his sixth year at the Treasury he has never done a solo press conference.

Osborne has shown he has skill to rewrite the political landscape. Now he is attempting to recast his own image. It is almost after all the years of hatred, he finally wants to be loved.

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror

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About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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