If George Osborne wants one thing other than to become Prime Minister, it’s to become Prime Minister without turning into Gordon Brown.
The parallels – a Chancellor who aspires to take over from the personally popular leader whom he helped to secure the top job – have always suggested themselves. Osborne has resisted any impetus to become bitter or resentful towards his friend and Downing Street neighbour (though some argue he has given in to the temptation to use his control of the purse strings to buy popularity), but now he faces the most tricky period of his plan.
Think back to what happened with Brown. He engineered a coronation as party leader, bottled “the election that never was”, and thus became Prime Minister without holding an election. His ideological and character flaws played a major part in his downfall, but the manner of his ascent cast a shadow over his judgement and his legitimacy from the outset.
Brown was Osborne’s first, and most serious, opponent in the Treasury brief. As a result, the Chancellor studied him extremely closely and his errors will no doubt be at the forefront of Osborne’s strategising mind as he makes his plans.
The first hurdle – winning the Conservative leadership – is far from guaranteed. He won’t find himself unopposed in seeking the job. Indeed, learning from Brown’s mistake in crushing all opposition, I suspect he would prefer to fight and win rather than be crowned.
Octopus Osborne has worked hard to extend his patronage within the Parliamentary Conservative Party to ensure a place in the final two – after that it will be in the hands of the Party membership.
But if he does win, what then? Given the impact on Brown’s premiership of that disastrous decision to hype up a snap election and then balk at the last moment, he may well want to go to the country to secure his mandate. After so long as the loyal right hand man, he wants to be more than just a continuity candidate, getting on with Cameron’s mission using the majority that Cameron won. A General Election would allow him to mark the beginning of a new era, not just the new boss, same as the old boss.
The state of the Opposition lends weight to the argument. Rather than run the risk of Corbyn being knocked off his bike or overthrown by Labour’s relatively moderate rump, or – worse – allowing the Corbynites to effect a transition to an anointed, younger and less immediately obviously extreme successor, it would be hugely tempting to force Labour to face the voters in their current state of disarray. The electorate which rejected Ed Miliband as untrustworthy with the economy and national security would surely judge Corbyn, McDonnell and their unpalatable platform even more harshly.
It would obviously be desirable for Osborne to begin his leadership with a General Election. But would it be possible? I’m sure it’s by coincidence that The Times mentioned yesterday that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – a dreadful piece of constitutional litter which should never have been granted to the Liberal Democrats – would need to be dealt with first.
The Act often causes a lot of confusion, with its demands for a double vote of no confidence, or a supermajority to call a snap election. But in reality it’s quite simple. It would have caused a headache for a minority Conservative Government (as I wrote last March, when such a thing seemed possible) but it would pose little issue for a newly-minted Prime Minister, at the head of a Conservative majority government.
It would go one of three ways:
Either Osborne (or Boris, or May, or whoever else might be the next leader) could propose a General Election, and dare Corbyn or his MPs to demonstrate their cowardice by refusing to provide the two-thirds majority required to vote the motion through.
Or the new Prime Minister could rally Conservative MPs to simply repeal the Act – a simple approach, though one which would pose a slight risk of being thwarted by a rebellion.
Or, the most secure route, someone could propose a vote of no confidence in the Government, giving the Opposition 14 days to form a new Government, at the end of which the Conservative majority could simply vote that they had no confidence in the proposed alternative administration, and an election would be declared.
If that election comes to pass, and it delivers an increased Conservative majority as anticipated, then there would be plenty of opportunity to get rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Aact with a simple vote to repeal, banishing it back to the dusty Lib Dem ideas folder whence it came.
Whatever one might think of the Chancellor, there’s no denying that he plays a long game. I’d be surprised if this hasn’t been written into his plan for quite some time.