The Chancellor, it seems, wants to stay on as a senior member of the Government. All the signs are there: he is briefing out his plans for the Autumn Statement, delivering a lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies on Monday and while he has carefully avoided backing a horse in the leadership race, he has also noticeably failed to quash rumours that one candidate or another might recruit him to continue as Chancellor or serve in another Cabinet role.
Can he really believe this to be appropriate, right or wise?
Consider what has happened in recent months.
Osborne, along with Cameron, effectively led the Remain campaign. While he mostly avoided public appearances on the topic, he was still at the top of the tree. And the campaign failed, in one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history.
When he did speak during the referendum, it was to warn of disastrous consequences for the economy – an economy which he, as Chancellor, is meant to support rather than undermine by hacking away at investor confidence. We now know that he actively encouraged international figures to issue such warnings about the future of the British economy, too.
As things got more desperate, he teamed up with Alistair Darling to promise the notorious ‘punishment budget’, with £30 billion of cuts and tax rises. That act infuriated and alienated large numbers of Conservative MPs, Party members and voters, and further frightened consumers. Voters ignored him – and, it turned out, with good reason. Not only has he now announced that in fact he is planning tax cuts, we are told belatedly that there will be no emergency budget at all.
Add it all up, and this is a politician who has just suffered a huge national defeat, and who issued repeated warnings and threats which have been exploded by reality. That’s blunt, admittedly, but no less true for it.
He was right not to resign immediately after the referendum – to do so would have added further market nervousness on top of that which already existed (some of which he had helped to fuel). He did the responsible thing and stayed to ensure continuity and stability. But does he really think that after all that has happened he can continue to play this role – or another role at the top table of British politics – after Cameron goes at the start of September? His credibility and his political standing have both suffered a battering, partially of his own making. To try to ignore that would be disastrous for him, for his legacy and for the Conservative brand.
Osborne has been a hugely important figure in the Conservative Party, in the British economy and in UK politics. There is no denying that fact, or his many achievements. Perhaps he can attain such a position again; others have suffered much worse and still returned. But absolution never happens without penance, in politics as in anything else. If he hopes to come back at some point, he ought first to go away for a while.