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FRAYNE James

James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.

George Osborne was one of the most gifted politicians of this era, but his time as an MP is surely coming to an end. It’s hard to see how he can continue this role credibly.

While voters never warmed to him, the Conservative Party will lose a tactical brain highly attuned to Westminster politics and media. They’ll also lose someone with nearly a decade of important and relevant financial and economic experience, which should be put to use in the Brexit negotiations. 

But with his likely exit, he’ll leave another huge gap: his role as the Conservatives’ chief modernist. This is not a reference to his role in the “modernising” project led by David Cameron – which was crucial – but that of a politician who endlessly sponsored ideas to make Britain a more innovative and productive country.

He is someone that truly believes in the importance to the economy of cutting edge technology, and of the need for policies to help encourage it. 

Osborne would leave a gap in any Government he left, but he leaves a particularly big gap in the UK. While there are others – Matt Hancock, most notably – that have pushed this agenda, this Government does not have people at the most senior levels that see things in the same way as Osborne.

Neither Theresa May nor Philip Hammond self-define in the way Osborne did and neither will be pushing the same sorts of policies. Their most important economic policy area – the industrial strategy – makes some passing positive noises about technology (and is investing in AI) but it’s not a document that Osborne would have written. 

It’s true some politicians and advisers leap on the issue of technology simply because of the signals it sends in doing so: that they’re part of the modern world and understand the zeitgeist. But Britain’s position as an independent economic power – and a world leader – depends on harnessing technology to create an efficient state and an innovative and productive economy. 

The most notable absence from the recent digital strategy, and the industrial strategy, are major Government projects that will change services for the better and improve Britain’s long-term competitiveness.

For example, in last year’s (now scrapped) Education White Paper, there were plans to create a “Parent Portal” that would change how parents were able to interact with schools and understand what their kids should be learning to keep up with the country’s best pupils (and indeed the world’s best).

In the much derided 2016 budget, Osborne put huge emphasis on maths education: you could easily imagine a similar drive in computer science had he still been in post. It is very likely there would be a host of streamlined immigration policies for top developers and computer scientists to show industry, and the world, that London wanted to remain the tech capital of Europe.

To be fair, Theresa May was an early pioneer with crime maps, and the industrial strategy does put large amounts of investment into Artificial Intelligence. But the driving ambition to be modern, to make London (more than the rest of the UK) the most attractive and exciting city on earth: that has gone.

It had its drawbacks – I was one of those most irritated by the elite and London-centric focus of the Cameron Government – but its almost total absence from current Government is a loss. 

43 comments for: James Frayne: May needs a replacement for Osborne the modernist

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