Team Osborne inspires a mixture of fear, loathing, admiration and wariness. The conventional view (which I do not share) is that it is far more formidable than Team Cameron, which is widely regarded as inefficient and insufficiently political.
Soon after starting work on this portrait of Team Osborne, I noticed that a smaller proportion of people than usual was responding to my requests for help. Some who cherish hopes of promotion have may have considered it inexpedient to say anything which might annoy George Osborne.
The question of jobs arises almost at once in conversations about Osborne. Alan Clark’s Diaries remind one of the vast amount of time MPs devote to lusting after ministerial posts of pitiful insignificance: posts which they are in any case most unlikely to get.
In the present Tory party, many backbenchers believe you have virtually no chance of reaching even the first rung on the ministerial ladder unless you are either a woman, a member of some minority, or a Friend of George.
A number of MPs, including Sajid Javid, Matthew Hancock, Greg Hands, Jo Johnson, Claire Perry, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan and Harriet Baldwin, are spoken of as Friends of George, who can expect to obtain the good things of life, or at least the good things of Westminster.
For the purposes of this article, these MPs are treated as members of Team Osborne, as are the Chancellor’s advisers, including Rupert Harrison, Neil O’Brien, Eleanor Shawcross, Ramesh Chhabra and Thea Rogers.
But it has proved impractical to produce here the verbal equivalent of one of those group portraits in which every face appears with equal clarity. Profiles of Hands, Johnson and Morgan have in any case quite recently appeared on ConHome.
My more modest ambition is to sketch how Team Osborne appears to its critics, its admirers and to those who have not yet made up their minds.
One MP accused Osborne of treating the Conservative Party as if it belonged to him rather than to its members, and of trying to nobble anyone, such as Theresa May, who could become a contender against him for the leadership.
Another MP said Osborne expected total loyalty from his followers, and lamented that the Whips’ Office has been “flooded” with Osborne supporters, including Hands (expected to become the next Chief Whip), Perry, Rudd and Baldwin. According to this MP, the autonomy of the Whips’ Office has been undermined. He felt he could no longer speak to it in confidence, and that it would not be willing to convey unwelcome news to the party hierarchy about backbench opinion.
On the key question of loyalty, Perry, a former banker who worked as an adviser to Osborne in Opposition and has since established a reputation as one of the most trenchant members of the 2010 intake, mounted this defence in an interview last year with the Independent on Sunday:
“Here’s what people don’t realise about politics: it’s like being a salesperson. We are salespeople for a political brand. That, ultimately, is our job. People say, ‘Oh, she’s so slavishly loyal’. Well, the point is you go and lobby behind the scenes. You don’t air your differences in the Houses of Parliament.”
Some of us take the Burkean view that the Houses of Parliament are precisely the place where differences should be aired. But leaving that point on one side, it does seem a bit unfair to blame Osborne for expecting at least a degree of loyalty from his team.
Nor can (or should) there ever be enough ministerial jobs to satisfy all those backbenchers who yearn to obtain one. After the available portfolios have been shared out, there will always be resentment among some outsiders that they have not been invited to become insiders.
A gifted MP from the 2010 intake who still hopes for promotion suggested Osborne should pursue a “slightly more inclusive” recruitment policy, whereby able MPs who have not always seen eye-to-eye with the leadership are brought into the government. He instanced Andrea Leadsom as an independent-minded woman who nevertheless became in April this year a Treasury minister, as one of the changes resulting from the resignation from the Cabinet of Maria Miller.
But James Kirkup revealed, in a highly circumstantial account in the Daily Telegraph, that David Cameron and Sir George Young, the present Chief Whip, had in fact intervened to stop this post going to a member of Team Osborne:
“The Prime Minister blocked the Chancellor’s wish to pick one of his allies for the Treasury job, which was instead given to Andrea Leadsom…Mrs Leadsom is a former banker who once swore at Mr Osborne and called for him to apologise to Ed Balls over attacks on Labour’s record. The Chancellor had wanted to promote Amber Rudd, a former aide. The dispute over the mini-reshuffle is a rare sign of disagreement between Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, who have been personally and professionally close for two decades…Mr Cameron is said to have sided with Sir George Young, the Chief Whip, who warned that promoting Ms Rudd would anger Conservative MPs who resent the favour shown to ‘friends of George’. Mrs Miller quit as Culture Secretary earlier this month over her expenses. She was replaced in the Cabinet by Sajid Javid, a former Treasury minister and former aide to Mr Osborne. Also promoted was Nicky Morgan, another ally of Mr Osborne, who will attend the Cabinet as women’s minister. The fall of Mrs Miller and the appointments that followed have been seen at Westminster as a sign of Mr Osborne’s unchallenged power over the Conservative Party. Some Tories resent that influence, feeling that only Mr Osborne’s friends are promoted. According to Conservative Party sources, Mr Osborne told Mr Cameron that Miss Rudd should be promoted from her current post as a junior whip. Miss Rudd, a former financier and journalist, is a supporter of Mr Osborne and served as his parliamentary private secretary until last year. Mr Javid previously held the same job. But Sir George is said to have objected to the promotion of Miss Rudd, arguing that it would inflame tensions in the Commons over the favourable treatment given to Mr Osborne’s allies. A source said: ‘The Chief told him that he could have one PPS, but promoting two would be too much – the party wouldn’t have it. George didn’t like it, but in the end, the PM sided with the Chief.’ Blocking Miss Rudd led to a search for a new Treasury minister, which ended in the appointment of Mrs Leadsom.”
Osborne became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2005, at the age of only 33. He had read history at Magdalen College, Oxford, and set about recruiting the advisers he needed to help him survive against Gordon Brown, whose reputation as Chancellor was at this point still almost invincible. Osborne selected Matthew Hancock, who had worked at the Bank of England, Rohan Silva, who had worked at the Treasury, and Rupert Harrison, who had acquired an economics doctorate while working for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. According to Osborne’s biographer, Janan Ganesh, speaking in a profile of Harrison on Radio Four by Mary Ann Sieghart, the Shadow Chancellor
“would enjoy when receiving guests in his office saying ‘this is Matt from the Bank of England, this is Rohan from the Treasury, this is Rupert from the IFS’. And people would see into that a kind of shallow credentialism. But if you’re 33 and you’ve just got the job, I think you need a bit of that just to shore yourself up.”
Others express admiration for the way Osborne set out in a meritocratic or even eclectic spirit to find what he thought were the best people. He did not fall back on a ready-made set of old friends or colleagues, and appears to have set a higher value on intellect than on ideological purity: though the swift rise of Hancock, who entered Parliament in 2010 and in 2013 became Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, has infuriated a number of observers who can detect nothing special about him.
Harrison is now Osborne’s right-hand man at the Treasury. He possesses as much power as Ed Balls did when Brown was there, but exercises it in a quieter and calmer way. He was educated at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he switched from Physics to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Stewart Wood, who is now one of Ed Miliband’s closest lieutenants, taught him Economics and has remained a close friend.
After Osborne has spoken, it is Harrison who explains what he has said and takes questions from journalists interested in economics. At the last Tory conference, William Keegan, a columnist for the Observer who is by no means inclined to be complimentary about Osborne, listened to one of these briefings, after which Harrison came over to him and said: “You know I am a Keynesian.”
They proceeded to have “a nice chat about life in general”.
My reading of this encounter is that Osborne and Harrison are fully alert to the value of getting on friendly terms with any member of the Establishment who happens to be in the vicinity.
They perhaps take less trouble to stay on friendly terms with lowly members of the Conservative Party. Osborne and Harrison can seem all too uninterested in meeting unimportant people. They are centrists, and in Osborne’s case he has profited greatly from studying how Tony Blair did things, which is one reason why Labour now finds him so difficult to attack. To the annoyance of some Tories, Osborne has proved immune to the appeal of pure free-market doctrine and has occupied the centre ground, which leaves Labour with not much room for manoeuvre.
The civil service was at first charmed by Team Osborne, which behaved in a altogether more civilised manner than Team Brown had done. But it is said that Team Osborne’s manners towards officials have recently deteriorated.
Harrison played a leading role in devising the brilliantly successful inheritance tax pledge used by Osborne at the 2007 party conference to deter Brown from calling a general election.
For although Harrison is an accomplished economist, he is not blind to the importance of politics. A lobby correspondent said of Harrison: “If you tweet that something’s a victory for the Lib Dems, he rings you within three minutes.”
Osborne has also hired Neil O’Brien, a northerner, formerly the head of Policy Exchange, who has helped improve the “retail offer” made by the Conservatives to members of the skilled working class.
And Osborne has hired Thea Rogers, who used to be Nick Robinson’s producer at the BBC. She is credited – how justly I cannot say – with changing the Chancellor’s voice, hair and smile. His enemies say this is because he wants to be Tory leader. But Osborne himself said, in a radio programme in which he expressed his admiration for Henry VII, “I was always interested in the people around the King”.
The people around Osborne are themselves an interesting lot, and I apologise to those whom I have not found space to touch on here.