The Ascent of George Osborne, an evolution in three stages.
Stage One. When he first became Chancellor, Osborne was a pudgy sort of creature who hugged the bottom of the pond. Occasionally he’d surface to gulp out a Budget speech or Autumn Statement. But then he was gone again, back to the slimy comfort of the waiting dark.
Stage Two. Some time after the developmental experience of the Budget in 2012, this creature lost most of its subcutaneous fat, dragged itself on to land, put on a hi-vis jacket and hard hat, and changed its attitude. And so, as I’ve described before, he turned into White Van George.
Stage Three. The hi-vis jacket and hard hat remain, but – what’s this? – there’s now a purple robe draped across the former, and a laurel wreath perched atop the latter. The Chancellor’s evolution is almost complete. He has become an Emperor.
In truth, Osborne’s Empire has been expanding for a while. Even when we never used to see him, he was working to protect and advance his own territory. Being made Chancellor helped in the first place. The Treasury spans across Whitehall in a way that few other departments can or do, particularly during a time of budget cuts. But Osborne made sure to boost the effect by appointing allies to positions across government. Javid. Hancock. Truss. Boles. All are, or have been, extensions of what Paul Goodman first described three years ago as the Chancellor’s octopus arms.
But empires, like so much else, thrive on success. And there was a time when Osborne’s appeared set for failure; beset, as it was, by pasties, grannies and the economy’s stubborn refusal to grow. Even his sympathisers feared for his prospects back then. Some of them told me (£) that he’d be better off moving away from the Chancellorship and its horrible responsibilities. The project was going down, they thought – and it would take its founder with it.
More so than the economic growth between then and now, it took May’s election result to finally defeat this sentiment. Osborne has always been talked up as a masterful player of the game of politics, but still the question lingered: so why hasn’t he, with David Cameron, delivered the Conservatives an outright victory in a general election? Post-May, the answer isn’t just that he has, it’s that he did so against almost everyone’s expectations. The Chancellor’s credentials have been burnished to a high shine.
What has followed almost feels like a Roman-style triumph. The trip to China, the spread of the Northern Powerhouse, the interview with the New Statesman – it has been a procession of Osbornalia. But the crowning moment was probably the Budget on 8th July. This, as anyone in these parts could tell you, was the first all-Conservative Budget for almost 19 years. It was also the Chancellor’s opportunity to establish something beyond this Government’s fiscal parameters for the next five years: its character.
He did so by announcing a National Living Wage. He did so by introducing some of the benefit cuts that were promised before the election. He did so with policies that you may like or you may loathe. The point is that, whatever your view of the current administration, much of it is Osborne’s work. What is there that is identifiably Cameron in this majority conservatism? The NHS? That has been hidden behind Jeremy Hunt’s smile. The Big Society? That has simply died. It is White Van George’s Government now.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn strengthens Osborne’s dominance – and not just for the obvious electoral reasons. Ever since he first committed to “full employment,” in a speech last year, the Chancellor has been cruising towards a dust-up with Labour. After all, full employment has for a long time been a great cause of the left. A book that I’m reading at the moment, Twentieth Century Socialism, which was influential in the middle of the last century, even describes it as “the first condition of a socialist economy”. And here is a Conservative – a Conservative! – trying to claim it for himself.
Except Osborne’s idea of full employment is very different from the left-wing idea of full employment. It relies on the private sector, encouraged by tax breaks, to hire workers wholesale. It coincides with job cuts in the public sector. It doesn’t baulk at part-time or temporary labour. In other words, the Chancellor has taken this socialist concept and is divesting it of its socialism. He is waging an ideological struggle.
This makes Osborne the tip of the Conservative spear for skewering a full-blooded socialist such as Corbyn; a situation that could help him in any leadership contest ahead of the next general election. If he actually needs the help, that is. The Chancellor has, in the past couple of months, become the soar-away favourite in ConservativeHome’s monthly future leader polling. He once used to be a distant onlooker at Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s scrap for the top spot. Now he can look down on them.
Can Osborne really ascend even higher, to the leadership itself? Can he make de jure what is currently just de facto? The question will cling to this Parliament like a witch’s curse. There are certainly plenty of things that could go wrong for the Chancellor – the European Referendum could sour the party’s mood towards him, the economy could collapse again – but there also plenty that might go right. If he can secure Sajid Javid as a running mate, rather than face him as a competitor, then Osborne will represent not just the party’s present, but also what many people regard as its future. His supremacy would go on and on.
There are a thousand hurdles before that, however, beginning with next week’s conference speech. Will it range beyond the economy, perhaps as far as Europe? Will it dispel the notion that Osborne doesn’t truly care about anything other than putting blue pins into an electoral map? Every word shall be scrutinised, many will be scorned. Those purple robes never do hang comfortably.