George Osborne has changed over this Parliament. I mean, just look at him. The suit buttons that used to strain against his stomach, particularly when he lifted his Budget box for the cameras, now breathe easy at all times. His standard-issue Tory bouffant has made way for a much neater do. He no longer has the complexion of a marshmallow. And he’s now much more likely to be photographed in a hi-vis jacket than caricatured as a Regency era aristocrat. That couldn’t have been said in 2010.
These cosmetic changes may seem trivial, but, in the Chancellor’s case, they are the outward symbols of his political development. The Osborne that entered Coalition was a rather aloof-seeming politician who kept himself in the Treasury and emerged only to sermonise about the deficit and gilt yields and credit ratings. Whereas the Osborne that will enter the next election campaign is more heedful of folks’ everyday struggles. He’s not only bought into the White Van Conservatism espoused by Robert Halfon – cutting fuel duty, reducing various other taxes for the lower paid, advocating a rise in the minimum wage – he’s also brought Halfon onto his team. In substance, as well as in style, he has become more Man of the People.
Even those around Osborne admit that the change has been remarkable. For them, however, it’s less that George has suddenly become personable and down to earth, and more that he’s now letting his true personality show. They seem to like their boss with an uncommon sincerity and intensity. They want us to like him too.
Whatever the nature of the change, the fact that Osborne has changed at all is quite something. He can often be unchangeable to the point of stubbornness. This was evident before the election in how long he clung to Labour’s spending plans. And it’s been evident in his actions since accepting the fiscal realities. As Andrew Gimson explained recently, the Chancellor has more or less adhered to the checklist of spending cuts that he set out for this Parliament. When confronted with lower-than-expected tax receipts, and therefore a higher-than-expected deficit, he hasn’t increased the cuts to compensate. The circumstances may change, but Osborne tends to persevere.
This side of Osborne is overlooked by those who paint him as an unambiguously political animal. An unambiguously political animal would bend and sway with the day’s opinion polls and comment pieces. Whereas the Chancellor frequently stands firm in the face of unpopularity. Remember how he took child benefit away from higher earners? Or his opposition to the marriage tax breaks promised in the manifesto? It would, in many ways, have been easier for him to drop these quickly, but my guess is that he holds to a higher principle: that the Conservatives need to win support from outside their comfort zone. He has always been a truer moderniser than David Cameron.
Which leaves us with the question: if Osborne is such an unchangeable character, how did he manage to transform into White Van George? His team might say that this is how he’s always been, but I’d say that his team are also partly responsible. The Chancellor has benefitted from employing Thea Rogers, formerly Nick Robinson’s producer at the BBC, whose sharp televisual instincts are surely behind his slimmer outline, as well as the shop-floor venues he tends to speak in now. And he’s benefitted too from the wisdom of his adviser Neil O’Brien, the former director of Policy Exchange, who spent much of his time in Think Tank Land pondering the North and its workers.
But there must be more to it than personnel. Part of it could actually be Osborne’s failure to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament. He no longer boasts and preens as he did in the opening line of his first Budget speech – “This emergency Budget deals decisively with our country’s record debts” – but is more likely to point out his and the Government’s limitations. As he put it in one of the most revealing speeches of his time in Number Eleven, delivered at the beginning of this year:
“…there’s no point pretending that there’s some magic wand a Chancellor can wave to make the whole country feel richer than it actually is.”
The Chancellor is human, after all.
Not only is this a better look for any politician, it also has policy implications. In that speech, Osborne was talking about how he couldn’t do much to lower the cost of fuel, as he doesn’t control global oil prices. This may seem like a repudiation of White Van Conservatism and its pennies off fuel duty, but it actually heralded a new stage of it. Rather than introducing policies that may not meaningfully affect people’s daily lives and finances, the Chancellor has turned to those policies that can. Sometimes these are very large, such as the multi-£billion programme for improving Britain’s roads that will be detailed in the Autumn Statement. Sometimes they are relatively small, such as this year’s halving of the tax imposed on bingo halls. The common denominator is that they exist on the ground, rather than in the abstract.
Or put it another way: the Chancellor is in the business of doing “deliberate and positive” things. This was actually a phrase that Daniel Finkelstein used, a couple of years ago, in an article (£) that introduced the concept of “cold-weather modernisation”. Daniel also wrote that this means “persuading voters that when the economy returns to growth everyone will benefit, not just the few.” This seems to be what Osborne is aiming for now. He’s gone from the warm-weather modernisation that launched the Cameron leadership – the environment and all that – to the cold-weather truths of grocery bills and wages and potholes. He spans the two quite unlike anyone else in Government.
And there is a great unlikeness about George Osborne. It’s hard to conclude anything about him. His Chancellorship has not been straightforwardly successful. There could be worse mistakes to come, with his foolish insistence on cutting taxes and his eagerness to slash working-age benefits ahead of pensions. And yet he is certainly a more rounded and agreeable politician than he was four years ago. The change has been for the better.