By Paul Goodman
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George Osborne has fewer allies than he once did, and even fewer friends. Ed Balls wants to destroy him, and the feeling is mutual. Many Conservative backbenchers detest him. They see him as a political flyweight and strategic incompetent who messed up last year's budget and constantly meddles in matters that are none of his business. His Times article in the wake of Barack Obama's re-election, with its reference to the electoral joys of same-sex marriage, crystallised their complaints: why was the Chancellor playing politics, like some status-struck geek from the West Wing, rather than putting the hours in at the Treasury?
A very senior one made a point of telling me with relish that whenever he meets Osborne he is directed to the Chancellor's room in the Commons, not Whitehall. The implication was that Osborne is less at his desk straining to help turn round the economy than he should be. It gets worse. Some backbenchers claim that at moments of crisis for the Government, of which there are no shortage, his energies are diverted into threats and, well, inducements. Backbenchers with marginal seats are soothed with offers of Treasury "help" for their little local difficulties. Those who won't be soothed sometimes complain of being menaced.
Unhappy backbenchers are the lot of a Chancellor's life. Were the economy ticking up, as some expect it to do later this year, he would be less resented and better rated by the troops. (And perhaps also by voters: one poll this week found that Government policy loses popularity when his name is associated with it.) But worse still, he has lost a lot of goodwill in Cabinet since 2010. Again, Chancellors and spending Ministers are bound to clash when money is tight. But there is more to it than that. Osborne has more self-confidence than almost anyone I've ever met, and tends to flaunt it.
That joke about Cabinet members sitting round the Shadow Cabinet table after the election may seem an odd illustration with which to prove the point. But it holds. If a quip or sally is to hand, Osborne will reach for it reflexively, in the same instinctive way that Bertie Wooster was accused by Roderick Spode of reaching reflexively for other peoples' umbrellas. He simply doesn't care who he offends. The snook-cocking article he wrote in the Daily Mail, shortly after his election to the Commons in 2001, attacking MPs' pension arrangements was the quintessential illustration of his reckless streak.
Osborne survived it and flourished, so the last laugh to date has been with him, but he is chancing his luck, or at least his sense of humour. Eric Pickles has been goaded about going slow on growth. The National Union of Ministers, led by the Maynifesto-wielding Home Secretary, is digging its heels in over spending. Justine Greening was shockingly briefed against – ruthlessly dispensed with once she had dug her heels in over Heathrow, a stance that given her constituency interest she was bound to take. If it was such a problem, why appoint her in the first place? William Hague, his former boss, likes him and remains loyal. Few others do.
The Chancellor is my former boss – I was in his Shadow Cabinet team – and it was an enjoyable experience, at least for me. I admired the no-nonsense focus of his meetings, the way in which he got inside Gordon Brown's head and scrambled with his brains, and his record in turning round the Conservatives' low ratings in economic management. I also found him far better at levelling with his interlocutors than Cameron. One-to-one, he talks knowingly and evenly about whatever was up for discussion, without the faint de haut on bas manner that is responsible for a bigger slice of the Prime Minister's problems than he may have grasped.
Not everyone feels the same way. "He talks to me as though he thinks he's my intellectual and social superior," said one backbencher. He paused. "Come to think it, he probably is my intellectual and social superior." Another pause. "But he's a bloody fool to let me think that he thinks that he's my intellectual and social superior." The truth is that Osborne is a marmite politician in a country that prefers marmalade – or rather, Ed Balls, if that recent poll is to be believed, at least for the moment. This distorts judgements. Mine is that he's not as good as his tiny band of fans claim and not nearly as bad as his much bigger band of detractors assert.
On the minus side, last year's budget is the exemplar. On the credit one, there are pluses that are sometimes forgotten. His main aim was to reverse the party's poll deficits on the economy and the NHS, and he succeeded. And his stamp duty and inheritance tax pledges helped to frighten Brown off the 2007 election he might have won. But these abandoned promises help to illustrate one of his accusers' favourite taunts – namely, that the Chancellor travels conviction-light. He is certainly a completely different creature from the Lawsons and Howes of the Thatcher era (though Lawson had a more acute political touch than some believe).
Mind you, Osborne's tendency to duck and dive can be exaggerated. Janan Ganesh's biography of the Chancellor details how he, rather than Cameron, came to see that embracing austerity was necessary – whatever the electoral consequences. Osborne's fans will assert that his decision to come out for cuts was brave and right, and that once he made it, he stuck to it. The Chancellor's critics will counter that if he has done so earlier, voters in those vital midlands and northern marginals that the party failed to gain in 2010 might have been won round. The debate goes on. And so does Osborne, at least for the time being.
His plan leaves him with few options this week. Only by reducing spending faster would he, since he takes a suspicious Treasury view of those Laffer curves, make room for the shock-and-awe tax cuts that his Tory critics are calling for. He won't cut the rate of spending more swiftly. And even if he wanted to, the Liberal Democrats wouldn't let him. So there it is. Cameron's critics suggest, none too subtly, that his head be served up on a plate – and are poised to do so even less subtly once he sits down on Wednesday. This is smart. Cameron can't afford to lose the ally who's been with him since the start. It's clever of them to make demands that won't be met.
In similar circumstances, other Chancellors would try to distance themselves from the Prime Minister. Lawson fell out with Thatcher. Brown did with Blair. Darling did with Brown. It was another of Thatcher's Chancellors, Geoffrey Howe, who sealed her fate: the dead sheep savaged her. I have teased Osborne by clocking his submarine and octopus tendencies – the way he lurks under cover in the Treasury's deep waters, and reaches out with his long tentacles to make an appointment or frustrate an opponent in Westminster and Whitehall. But what strikes me most about him, as his budget looms this week, is not his ruthlessness, but his selflessness.
In his biography of Cameron, Francis Elliott writes that, back in 2005, Osborne briefly wondered whether to stand for the leadership himself. He didn't – calculating, correctly, that his friend and colleague stood a better chance of cutting it with the party and voters. Such dispassion requires a certain self-knowledge. And Osborne has stuck to his guns ever since. Unusually, this Chancellor has never let so much as a strip of ricepaper get between him and his Prime Minister – in public, at any rate. No May-nifesto for him. He knows that if Cameron falls, he will fall with him. So he is taking the hit for the boss. He is being the loyal trooper.
Sure, it wouldn't help Osborne's ambitions to act otherwise. Indeed, it would harm him. None the less, it takes stoicism and illusionlessness and, yes, a certain amount of courage and character to stay on the bridge and keep taking the hits. Osborne is just about the last person I would ever confuse with Dido – Dido the singer, that is, not Dido the widow and suicide (though I wouldn't muddle him up with her, either). But he is like the chorus in one of the most ravishing of her songs. He will go down with the ship. He won't put his hands up and surrender. There will be no white flag above his door.