History Suggests George Osborne Won't Be Prime Minister
“A party conference can be many things,” The deliciously fictional Chief Whip Francis Urquhart once said, “A show of strength, an agonising re-appraisal, or, as in this case, a series of auditions by pretenders for the throne while the lost leader withers before our very eyes.” David Cameron is no lost leader: with Labour unexpectedly routed in May and an unpopular Labour leader installed, his authority has never been greater. However, I hazard that the 2015 Conservative Party Conference will turn out in to be a variation on all three.
The slogan - “Security, Stability, Opportunity” - was not designed to set hearts racing but to remind voters of long-standing Conservative themes, which have been given a greater resonance by Jeremy Corbyn’s election; this is combined with a brassy raid on Labour territory as the party launches its own trade union movement, the brainchild of Deputy Chair, Robert Halfron. This may seem ridiculous, even insulting but politics is always about position and the party is continuing its modernisation by winning back those Thatcher voters who never warmed to Cameron but whom they feel will not be swayed Corbyn and have grown tired of the futility of UKIP. While Labour has been navel gazing, the Conservatives have been mapping out a greater majority in 2020.
This conference will not be a series of auditions for the leadership. There will be one audition with some others to make up the numbers. If David Cameron who has announced he will not be seeking a third term, will not dominate the conference, his Chancellor will. The co-option of Andrew Adonis is a demonstration of what the future could look like if the future is Osborne.
It is remarkable to chart Osborne’s reversal in fortune: three years ago, after his “omnishambles Budget”, he faced calls to be sacked; if the Conservative Party had not won the election, he would probably have failed to make the final two candidates who go forward to the membership for their vote in any leadership election. Instead, he has assumed the position of heir apparent. May's victory was as much his to savour as his leader’s; in his July mini-budget he asserted his dominance over the government and stole some left-wing clothes by introducing a “living” wage. A victory on 37% of votes cast has been turned into a potentially transformative result.
OSBORNE DOES NOT POSSESS THE RANGE OF SKILLS A MODERN LEADER NEEDS
Yet history is against him. Osborne has taken two calculated gambles: the first is to play a role in the EU renegotiation which places him at odds with Tory members; the second is to remain as Chancellor.
“There are only two types of Chancellor: those who fail and those who get out in time.” Gordon Brown was among the latter, but he was prime minister when the global economy crashed and when his final budget surprise of a cut in income tax and the abolition of 10p tax band unravelled. Osborne may not be so lucky.
The Treasury allows him to influence both the whole government and the party. It also allowed him to pull his summer conjuring trick. His cunning sleight of hand might return to damage his now soaring reputation. The IFS has calculated that claimants will be £1,000 worse off per annum. The new “living” wage will not compensate for the totality of the cuts. Nor has he done anything to tackle the great problem of productivity in the UK economy. This most political of ministers has chosen to remain in the office where an ability to influence events which have a discernible impact upon voters’ lives is, at best, minimal.
The last favourite to become Tory leader (and prime minister) was Anthony Eden in 1955. No early favourite has ever won a elected leadership contest since the first was held in 1965: Heath and Thatcher were both outsiders when they entered the fray; four years before their election as leader (which is what roughly where we are in the probable timeline) John Major and William Hague were obscure junior ministers dealing with the tricky issues of pensions and disabilities; David Cameron himself had only just been elected an MP.
The Chancellor has one other significant disadvantage. Parties tend to choose leaders whose definition is in contrast with their predecessor. The emollient John Major succeeded the strident Margaret Thatcher. Fairly or unfairly, Cameron is defined as posh, maybe un-ideological (by present Conservative standards). After fifteen years, maybe by 2020 Tory members will be looking for a change. If so, that is not Osborne. Nor indeed Boris Johnson.
My gut tells me that George Osborne does not possess the range of skills a modern leader needs and the more he is in the spotlight the more this will show. An outsider will not suffer this same scrutiny. His only chance of succeeding is if Cameron goes late in the term after an EU referendum victory. But a lot also depends on the Labour leader: if Corbyn survives until 2020 the Tories may well settle for a low-risk choice. If not, start looking at the 50-1 options.
In May I said to friends that the next Labour leader would be someone whose name had not yet registered with the public. I was correct but not in the way I expected. Maybe if I say something similar again, I will prove luckier this time.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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