Resurrection can only happen if death comes first, and this takes place in politics as well as in myth. Nelson Mandela could only become an icon of reconciliation, and President of South Africa, after grinding years in prison on Robben Island. De Gaulle had all that time at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. At a less exalted level, Iain Duncan Smith could only return to Cabinet, and win credibility as a campaigner against poverty, by establishing the Centre for Social Justice and making those visits to Easterhouse.
George Osborne reads widely, has a shrewd take on other people, is an eternal student of the political scene, and possesses a certain modesty: after all, he never conspired against David Cameron, and thus shored up the foundation on which their partnership was built, learning from the self-destructive lesson of Blair versus Brown. So it is baffling that he failed, once the referendum was lost for Remain, to grasp the situation he was in. David Cameron rightly announced his resignation because he appreciated that his policy had failed. But it was also the Chancellor’s policy and campaign: indeed, he co-led it with the Prime Minister, in much the same manner as they have co-run government since 2010 and the Party since 2005.
Furthermore, Osborne threatened a post-referendum Punishment Budget with tax rises and spending cuts. This was an abuse of his office: it is the Chancellor’s duty to steady the markets, not to spook them, or try to. As events turned out, this Budget was not delivered. Indeed, the wake of the vote found him musing aloud about a big tax cut – the slashing of corporation tax, as floated the day before by Theresa May. His role in the campaign was less than glorious. The attacks by Amber Rudd on Boris Johnson during the ITV referendum debate will have been approved by Downing Street and the Treasury. Osborne, please note, didn’t take part in any of the debates himself, a point on which this site pursued him.
De Gaulle scorned what he called “the ballet of the parties” – in other words, the scrambling of French politicians for office, amidst a political culture in which they could enter office, leave it, and then swiftly re-enter it again, in the manner of those dolls on cuckoo clocks. A big chunk of those of who voted Leave, quite a few Remain voters, and a healthy slice of Conservative MPs would have been furious had the Chancellor seen his policy defeated, pause, move to the Foreign Office, and carry on blithely as if nothing had happened. Such seems more or less to have been to have been his plan. But whether it was or not, the best path for him to have taken, the day after the referendum, was to have let it be known that, like Cameron, he was resigning too.
This would been best for him as well as everyone else, since he would thus have avoided the humiliation of being fired. This was a bad end for a good Chancellor. Yesterday evening, in the wake of being sacked, he tweeted: “I hope I’ve left the economy in a better state than I found it”. He did. He may not have ended the structural deficit, but he reduced it – substantially as a proportion of GDP. His policies brought economic recovery where his critics claimed they would bring ruin. He helped to create the British jobs miracle. He was on the right side of the argument over housing. He came to realise that growth and devolution go hand in hand. He cut corporation tax and capital gains tax. His contribution to making his Party electable was protean, and should be honoured – and learnt from.
He can come back. If the new Government runs into deep trouble, he almost certainly will. And he can return to office even if it doesn’t, if May eventually wants him back in Cabinet. She could take the view that much of what did during the referendum campaign was simply offering cover for Cameron: to his credit, Osborne has always been prepared to take bullets for his friend and ally. We will find out more when the memoirs are written. And perhaps his attempts to stay in office aren’t so surprising after all. After all, we all see others’ weaknesses more clearly than we see our own.