The Prime Minister has had a rough few days, what with the ongoing backlash against the watered-down EU deal and then the row over highly dubious claims about migrant camps moving to Kent. Sarah Wollaston’s declaration for Leave in today’s Times suggests the storm hasn’t blown itself out yet.
But in his hour of need, where is his steadfast ally, the Chancellor?
The mutual support the two men offer one another is the foundation on which the Coalition and then Conservative majority government were built. And yet now, of all times, Osborne is conspicuous by his absence.
He was in Italy a week ago, where he and the Italian Finance Minister apparently ‘agreed we’ve [got the] basis of [a] good plan for Britain and for EU’. While in Rome, he argued that the Tusk package was a useful bulwark against an over-mighty Eurozone. That trip was notable largely because it is the latest sign of an apparent alliance with the Italian government on EU issues – Philip Hammond and his opposite number have collaborated in the past on the topic, too.
On his return, it was back to bread and butter work - a visit to a building site (complete with hi-vis jacket), a letter to Mark Carney about inflation and congratulations given to Danny Alexander on his new job in China.
By the weekend, he was in California for the Super Bowl – in a “private capacity”, ie on holiday. Since then, nothing. Everyone deserves a break, of course, but it’s fair to say some Conservative MPs are a little surprised at the Chancellor’s absence at such a crucial point in the renegotiation proceedings. He was meant to be leading on the renegotiation personally at one point, and yet now the Prime Minister appears to be taking the flak alone – in public, at least.
Other parliamentarians share rumours of text messages from Osborne to junior ministers whom he fears might be wavering between Leave and Remain, remarking on how nice it is to work with them in their Government jobs, hint hint – a continuation of his drinks party offensive of the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, other clouds are gathering on the horizon. The Chancellor himself noted the dangers of “the fragile global macroeconomic climate” in his letter to Carney – and since he sent it the FTSE has hit a three-year low, the Nikkei has fallen five per cent and the German finance minister was forced to assure the public that Deutsche Bank is still stable despite investors’ fears. At home, The Sun warns Osborne against increasing fuel duty to close the deficit after the IFS warned that he might have to take such a drastic step to meet his self-imposed targets.
While running the Treasury grants a politician a lot of power over both patronage and policy – and can offer a springboard to the top job – it is a political high-wire act. On the EU and the global economy, the weather is turning breezy, making it all the more difficult for him to keep his balance.
Gordon Brown used to joke that “there are two kinds of Chancellor – those who fail and those who get out in time”. He went on to live out the adage in the most miserable way possible: Osborne’s challenge is to avoid that curse.