By Tim Montgomerie
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There's not much joy for George Osborne in today's YouGov poll for The Sunday Times (PDF). Two weeks ago ConHome revealed that Tory members had lost a lot of faith in the Chancellor and negativity is now widespread across the public. Just 18% think he is doing a good job and 58% think he is doing a bad job. That compares to a 34%/60% rating for David Cameron. Mr Osborne is also blamed for the U-turns. 31% of those who see the U-turns as a sign of weakness or incompetence blame him for them. That compares to just 18% who blame the Prime Minister and 15% who blame Nick Clegg.
When I revealed the downturn in support for the Chancellor a fortnight ago I also said that I still believed that he was the one man in the Cabinet who could turn things around:
"The Budget was not well handled but he remains one of the Government's most able ministers. All reports from trusted sources say he has a very good grip on the Treasury. He remains very capable of first deciding upon and then executing a change of course. If anyone can identify and then deliver the gear change that this Coalition needs it is him."
There have been signs in recent times that George Osborne is on serious manoeuvres. We have learnt that he is urging the Prime Minister to back a referendum on Britain's future relationship with the European Union. A much more pronounced Eurosceptic than David Cameron he is facing resistance from his former boss and now Foreign Secretary, William Hague. The Chancellor nonetheless believes that such a pledge is essential to solidify the Conservative Party's unhappy base vote. James Forsyth reports in today's Mail on Sunday that Coalition failure on immigration is a bigger drag on Tory fortunes. While that might be correct the issues aren't unconnected. Until we can control our border with the EU we cannot control our border full stop.
The latest sign of George Osborne's wish to change the Government's gear comes in today's Observer. The Chancellor – building on his speech to last year's party conference – wants to cut energy subsidies by 25%.The Liberal Democrats won't like that but in an age of austerity and rising household bills such subsidies fly in the face of economic gravity.
George Osborne has long been viewed as too tactical and we can only hope the repeated U-turns have cured him of (a) that weakness and (b) the sense that he can be Chancellor, Chief election strategist and general busybody across government. He must surely now accept that Cameron needs a powerful and full-time Tory Chairman who can direct political operations in a way that a Chancellor facing an economic crisis cannot. My nomination remains Michael Gove for that job for the reasons explained here. I mention my recommendation in hope rather than expectation.
Tory activists shouldn't give up on Osborne. As well as his instincts on Europe and energy bills he is the author of the Coalition's hugely popular welfare cap. As I blogged a week ago he was not a supporter of the 45p "half-measure" but was disastrously over-ruled by Clegg and Cameron. He has found more money for Gove's schools reforms, rightly recognising that a new generation of technical colleges are vital for Britain's economic future. His weaknesses are also well known but he deserves the opportunity to first steady the ship and then plot a course to a safe harbour.