Both Claire Perry and Amber Rudd would be good Ministers. (They were appointed to the Whips Office yesterday, in a sign of greater things to come.) But so would, more or less off the top off my head, Margot James and Therese Coffey – not to mention Nicola Blackwood, Tracey Crouch, Jessica Lee, Priti Patel and Laura Sandys. What have Perry and Rudd got going for them that these others haven’t? Why, that they are Friends of George (F.O.G). Perry worked for the Chancellor in opposition before entering the Commons, and Rudd was his PPS before being promoted yesterday.
Other F.O.Gs will argue that I am being selective with my facts – pointing to the promotion of non-F.O.Gs such as Jane Ellison, George Eustice and Kris Hopkins. (I don’t mean to suggest that any of these are Enemies of George, merely that they haven’t worked with him or for him.) But look at the reshuffle more broadly. Matthew Hancock, Osborne’s Chief of Staff in opposition, was promoted yesterday in his joint BIS/Education role from Under-Secretary to Minister of State. Sajid Javid, another former PPS to the Chancellor, is now Financial Secretary (though Javid is now an emerging power in his own right).
Above all, Greg Hands, one of the few Tory MPs to really take the fight to Labour on Twitter, is promoted to become Deputy Chief Whip. Hands is a former Treasury Minister. The Whips Office, with Hands and Perry and Rudd in place, is now as much Osborne’s as David Cameron’s. It’s true that not every F.O.G rose yesterday. Greg Clark was moved sideways to apply his fine mind to the constitution as well as to the regions and cities. And a former Treasury Minister, the hard-working and well-rated Mark Hoban, left the Government – a rare instance of the Chancellor neglecting his duty of care.
But, overall, the pattern is unmistakable: the Times reports yesterday’s events beneath the headline: “Osborne’s supporters move a step closer to Cabinet”. The shuffle sends out a clear message to backbench Conservative MPs who seek promotion (besides: bring something a bit different to the ticket, such as being a woman or representing a non-south east seat). It reads: “stay on the right side of the Chancellor”. The promotion of F.O.G also serves as a quiet declaration of intent. Osborne is seldom seen as a likely successor to Cameron, polling a mere two per cent or so in ConservativeHome’s monthly surveys.
This will not be the view at the Treasury. The submarine Chancellor is ready to rise to the surface if the time is ever right, though he would never challenge his friend, the Prime Minister – in whose Government he plays a role as all-pervasive as Gordon Brown did in Tony Blair’s, though mercifully without the rivalry and envy. The shuffle thus sends a signal not only to Tory backbenchers but to leadership aspirants, too – to Theresa May and, especially, to Boris Johnson. The view from my Wandsworth window shows blue skies. But only a few miles away, Westminster this morning is shrouded in F.O.G.