Petronella Wyatt makes an interesting point about George Osborne and David Cameron in the extract from her new book in today’s Mail on Sunday:
I liked George in a way I never liked David. Their private personalities are in direct contrast to their public ones. On a political stage, David is more commanding; not only clever, but sometimes deceptively charming, while George can seem as stiff as a martinet.
In private, however, George is a gossip par excellence, amusing even. He appreciates opera and is a scholar of Americana. Yet he can be sensitive to pricks and stings, and in his personality there are flashes of darkness.
To understand the Chancellor, you must understand what it is to be partly Hungarian. He first became interested in politics, aged 13 or 14, when his mother [who is of partly Hungarian descent] described the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, which was put down with harsh brutality. George has little of the Anglo-Saxon about him and much of the Magyar.
His complexion is eastern, with the fish-belly pallor of Vlad the Impaler. His eyes have a Mongolian slant and his voice the twang of a gipsy’s zither. He is quick-tempered and, unlike most privately educated Englishmen, enjoys the company of women… One of his defects as a politician is that it is difficult to like him if you don’t know him, whereas David is easy to like until you do.
The Wyatt style can be as superheated and implausible as anything in Disraeli. But like that statesman, she discerns things which escape more stolid, unromantic observers.
And some other members of what used to be called the Notting Hill Set have made the same observation: that in private, they prefer Osborne to Cameron.
There is probably a divergence in most politicians – even in most people – between private persona and public performance. But a mask can also become so habitual that it becomes second nature.
In the first volume of his magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher, Charles Moore observers that “Margaret followed closely her mother’s precept, ‘Never leave the house looking untidy’.” Thatcher entered politics with pre-1960s ideas of how to dress and behave.
Moore adds that once she entered Parliament, “she never once went into the Smoking Room unaccompanied, just as she never entered a pub alone”. Her unwavering commitment to a certain middle-class idea of respectability was one reason why so many members of the intelligentsia despised and underestimated her.
They did not know, or want to know, of her tolerant attitude towards louche behaviour by members of her staff. Nor were they prepared to see past the 1950s clothes to her spiritedness as a political performer, her gift for dramatising whatever she was doing, and her ability to rise to the big occasion.
To her detractors, Thatcher was just a boring little housewife with a tin ear. How shocked they were when she exploded their patronising, patriarchal assumptions.
If there is a lesson for Osborne in this, it is a somewhat paradoxical one. Thatcher succeeded by looking like an old-fashioned suburban housewife, while taking decisions which were at the forefront not just of national but of global thinking. Like Harold Macmillan, she was a moderniser disguised as a relic of the past.
Is it too late for Osborne to look more old-fashioned too? A certain stiffness of manner would suit him: is in fact already part of his public manner, however charming he may be in private. Instead of struggling to eradicate all traces of hauteur from his demeanour, let him play up to these.
The way for him to look real is for him to turn, by degrees, into a continental caricaturist’s idea of an English gentleman: a tall, thin figure never seen without hat, umbrella, waistcoat, buttonhole and (the final touch, which needs to be in place in time for the next leadership contest) monocle.
We are tired of politicians trying to win our favour by pretending to be the same as us. We want them to dare to be themselves. If Osborne will not oblige, we shall have to send for Jacob Rees-Mogg.