And then there was one. Today is George Osborne’s first in the Commons without the man who has been his political partner almost since both were elected together in 2001. Furthermore, he wakes to the official publication of the Boundary Commission’s proposal to abolish his Tatton constituency. Morning, George!
The first is a worse blow than the second. It would be surprising were the former Chancellor, the man who co-ran the Conservatives from 2005 until only a few weeks ago, were not to find another seat – in Cheshire or elsewhere. But the announcement of Cameron’s departure will have been a further demonstration of the fickleness of the gods.
Until recently, Osborne was Secord Lord of the Treasury, spider at the centre of the web, master of all he surveyed, holder of the nation’s purse-strings, funder of a score and more of boondoogles to marginal Tory seats, buttered up to and fawned over by Conservative backbenchers. Now? “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”.
But the former Chancellor is nothing if not a realist. He can work the numbers out as well as anyone. The Conservatives win again in 2020. Theresa May keeps him out of Cabinet. But they narrowly lose to Sadiq Khan in 2025. He wins the consequent Tory leadership election, and is Prime Minister in 2030 at 59 – the same age that May is now.
A question that follows is whether he wants to hang around the Commons for the best part of ten years as a backbencher on the off-chance that this may happen – contacts atrophying, skills rusting, coverage fading, reputation as a winner trashed, symbol of a gamble with Britain’s future that failed: an octopus with lopped tentacles.
He will ask it to himself, and answer that it ain’t necessary so. A period that has seen a surprise Conservative election victory (to which his own contribution was considerable), the overthrow of the established order that was the referendum result, and the near-wipeout of Scottish Labour at Westminster can see stranger things yet. Anything can happen at backgammon, as Alan Clark used to say.
This leads to an inescapable conclusion. If he is to rise – or, rather, return to office before 2020 – May must fall, or at least be weakened to the point where she cannot avoid summoning him back to one of the great offices of state. For he can be sure, given the brutal manner of his sacking, that she will not return him to government unless she has to.
He must, however, mask this truth as best he can. He cannot avoid any political initiative that he undertakes being written up as a challenge to her: that’s a Westminster Bubble fact of life. But he can minimise the risk if he thinks through what he does carefully and acts likewise. So how might he proceed?
He will continue to be a voice for the kind of socially liberal, metropolitan-flavoured, economically liberal, internationalist conservatism in which he believes. That’s a given. He will also burnish his reputation as a Chancellor who turned the economy round after a crisis when his opponents said he couldn’t. That’s a given, too.
But he clearly needs to do something, or a series of somethings, that are a bit more focused. One option is to set himself up as a champion of the midlands and north, making the devolutionary case for his Northern Powerhouse programme (which the new Government is ungripped by).
However, it might be hard to gain cut-through for such a campaign, given May’s stress on “ordinary working people” or, as she put it last week, “ordinary, working class people”. Another would be to appoint himself as an expert on foreign affairs. This ought to work. He has a sophisticated, strategic, Washington-flavoured feel for what different countries mean in the world, what their leaders are up to, and what the implications are for Britain.
Another still would be to combine parts of that first idea with bits of the second. He could become a champion of infrastructure and housing. This would be authentic. He has always smiled on Heathrow expanion and pushed for building more homes. His Hinkley Point nuclear scheme showed that he wasn’t frightened to take decisions.
If all this sounds a little mechanical and inhuman – as he has sometimes been accused of being – he could seek ways of humanising it. He could write a book, start a blog – or vlog. Better still, he could get on TV, and bang a drum for the modern world, Britain’s future, and how infrastucture is linked to both.
He could go to China, and paint a picture-story of why he believes its prospects and Britain’s are bound together. He could gawp at Shanghai Stock Exchange, ride a bullet train, gesture at the teeming crowds of Chengdu, Zhuzhou, Huainan. He could re-shoulder the backpack he used when he travelled the country as an even younger man.
He could nod and smile along with British exporters who are trying to make their way. He could go to Africa, where China and the West are grappling for money and power. Or spread his net wider still – and wider. He could travel to Texas or Illinois and interview former Presidents. He could wangle a way to sit down with Modi in Delhi.
He could tell the tale of how we must modernise or die. No, start that again. He could say that Britain has always been an exciting, dynamic, cutting-edge country – and that there are great opportunities out there for us in the wide world. He could wrap himself in the future-looking feel that is part of his character. He could blast into space!
He will probably do something smarter than any of these things. But you can never tell. He has had his triumphs and disasters – more of the latter recently than the former, including that reprehensible punishment budget plan. That’s why ConservativeHome argued that he had to leave the Government. If you co-lead one side of the biggest referendum campaign in British history and lose, you have to go – irrespective of the way you co-led it.
The bottom line, however, is surely this. He didn’t transform Britain’s economy as Chancellor. But he did help to turn it round. The growth, the jobs boom, Help to Buy, the corporation tax cuts, the Office of Budget Responsibility, the new minimum wage, the childcare offer, the shift of business rate revenues to local goverment…
…The 0.7 per cent aid commitment, the end of annuity compulsion, the bank levy, Funding for Lending, High Speed 2, Crossrail, the extension of Small Business rate relief, the Welfare Cap, the – no, enough! You get the point. Like them or loathe them, Osborne’s policies ran through the stick of rock that was the Coalition all the way through.
He is a politician of the first rank – or has been. He is creative, inventive, forceful. His faults are well known enough not to require repetition. He cannot come back until Brexit has formally happened. But there is one post not of the very top rank, but of the highest importance, that he could take, were he to return to government in, say, late 2019. Unlike Gordon Brown, he made sure as Chancellor not to lose touch with the armed forces.
The guarantee that Britain would meet the minimum NATO two per cent of GDP requirement took place on his watch at the Treasury. He could not reasonably refuse a summons to the Ministry of Defence. We are not recommending such a course, but it bears thinking about. If he is still a backbencher in early 2020 or so, the best guess is that he will sniff the wind, weigh up his options, and decide whether it’s worth, as he sees it, standing again.