By Paul Goodman
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George Osborne uses the Treasury as deep water in which to conceal himself, coming up for air to present budgets and autumn statements, but otherwise usually lying very low. That this most deliberate of politicians has surfaced in this morning's Times (£) to write about the American Presidential election is therefore worth noting. Or rather, to apparently look back to that election while actually looking forward to another one – that due to take place here in 2015.
Indeed, the Chancellor is in a awkward position when he writes about the United States since, on the one hand, he wants to hug Barack Obama close but, on the other, he doesn't want to sever his ties with the Republicans. (Mr Osborne being, or having been, a neo-conservative, and on amicable terms with Dick Cheney, no less.) So it comes about that he is able both to praise Paul Ryan and President Obama in almost the same sentence.
"The Republican message about fiscal responsibility and generational
fairness," Mr Osborne writes, was "powerfully articulated by the likes of Paul Ryan" – not, please note, by Mitt Romney, who can presumably now be ruthlessly jettisoned, whereas Mr Ryan may still be a future Republican player. The Chancellor squares his circle by commending President Obama for taking up Mr Ryan's austere message on the economy – unlike that irresponsible Mr Balls (tut, tut).
This sliver of chutzpah is sandwiched within four other points which, as I say, are really about the next British general election rather than last week's American Presidential one. Two of them are fairly straightforward: governments can win despite recession, and voters can blame previous governments for hard times – George Bush's in the States and Gordon Brown's here. The other two points are more suggestive.
Mr Osborne writes that the Romney campaign "ultimately did not convince voters that he was on
the side of ordinary, hard-working “middle class” (in their parlance)
Americans". The Chancellor is harking back not only to David Cameron's "Aspiration Nation" conference speech, but to his earlier declaration that the Government is on the side of the "hard-working head of the household" who "leaves for work every
But it is his last point that is the most significant – and which provides the main reason for Mr Osborne writing the article at all. He points out that President Obama's lead was 11% among women and that his "high-profile endorsement of equal marriage for gay couples also enthused
younger voters. But polls found that a majority of all Americans supported
him on the issue and voted for it in all four states that held ballots". He then adds that he wants to –
"…declare my personal position on these social issues: I wouldn’t
change the current abortion laws and I strongly support gay marriage on
principle. Of course in Britain these issues are ones of individual
conscience and free votes, but I am proud to be part of a Government that
will introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage. It is worth reflecting that in
Britain, as in America, a clear majority of the public support gay marriage,
and an even bigger majority of women support it."
The Chancellor is gilding the lily, or at least the polling, somewhat. One recent poll has indeed found a majority for gay marriage; another, like earlier polls, has found a plurality. But he is less concerned with trotting out statistics than sending a message. Mr Osborne wants to remind both voters and his party that he is a social liberal. His views on these matters are held very deeply. He also believes that they are where voters are going, so to speak.
It goes almost without saying that the Chancellor views himself as a potential leadership contender, and thus wouldn't want to lose potential support. He knows that if social conservatives vote with these issues uppermost in their minds in a future leadership election they won't be supporting him. My guess is that he has simply discounted such people as fusty reactionaries, and that his hopes lie with the more socially liberal – and numerous – 2010 intake.