by Mark Stockwell
There has been a tendency lately in some circles – no doubt including many Labour Uncut readers – to scoff somewhat at George Osborne. Since the chancellor’s questionable (politically if not economically) decision to cut the top rate of income tax, there has been a sense that his influence is on the wane. In particular, there has been a lot of chatter to the effect that he can’t combine his position as chancellor of the exchequer with his role as the Conservative party’s principal electoral strategist.
This week’s op ed in The Times – “”Obama proves you can win in tough times’(£) – shows that both his opponents and his enemies underestimate Osborne at their peril: he remains the key strategic force behind Conservative modernisation. In conjunction with David Cameron’s well-received party conference speech – admittedly a rather short-lived success – the Times piece gives a clear indication that while the occupants of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street remain in situ, that agenda is still very much alive.
It was gratifying, of course, that the central thrust of the chancellor’s argument was to endorse that of my own piece on the US elections a couple of weeks back – namely that the Tories would be heartened by an Obama victory. As Osborne puts it, “People agree with the message ‘we’re on the right track, don’t turn back’ because it is correct.”
I hesitate to say ‘you heard it here first’ but…
While that central message confirmed the Conservatives’ strategy for the next election, there were two other particularly notable points about Osborne’s piece. These suggest that the chancellor is intent on continuing to lift his eyes from the red book and the latest economic projections, and take a rather longer-term view of the political landscape.
Most obviously, as picked up by numerous commentators – and no doubt heavily trailed – is the emphasis on social liberalism. Osborne uses the piece explicitly to refer to the issue of gay marriage and put his personal weight behind it. He also notes the impact of women on the US election – with Obama losing quite badly among men but more than making up for it with female voters. The stance taken by various high-profile Republican candidates on abortion is cited as one reason for this.
There’s little doubt Osborne genuinely believes this. For all that he carries the unfortunate air of a pre-revolutionary French aristo, he has been consistently on the extreme liberal wing of his party on issues such as abortion limits and age of consent.
Nonetheless – and this is the second striking point – the article is not really an attempt to win a policy argument, either on economics with his opponents on the Labour benches, or on social issues with his enemies on the benches behind him. The piece is written mostly as political commentary rather than point-scoring.
Osborne goes through the motions of attacking Labour’s “borrow more to borrow less” approach to fiscal policy, of course, but there’s an air of disappointment at the puniness of his opponents and the weakness of their strategy, rather than any real anger.
For example, he doesn’t explicitly say that Labour has learnt nothing and would bankrupt the country again if they got back into government. Rather, he claims that “by opposing every cut and going on every trade union march, they are exposing themselves to the charge” that this is the case.
Equally, he doesn’t criticise Ed Balls directly (in fact he can’t seem to bring himself to use his name) but argues that Ed Miliband can’t “confront his party’s responsibility for …Britain’s profound economic problems … because he has chosen as his shadow chancellor a man more associated than anyone else with the economic mistakes of the last decade.”
Likewise, his arguments around gay marriage and abortion make no substantive points as to why these policies are right in themselves. He affirms that these are his personal beliefs but makes no effort to suggest that these are more valid in any way than those of social conservatives and the Tory right. Indeed, he goes out of his way to stress that, “in Britain these issues are ones of individual conscience and free votes.”
Rather, Osborne’s justification for supporting gay marriage is couched entirely in terms of political strategy – he cites the majority support for gay marriage and then states baldly that, “Successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead.”
What does all this show?
Osborne thinks he has weathered the storm. His decision to end the piece with a quotation from Margaret Thatcher – an attempt to turn the right’s heroine against them – is the sort of chutzpah one does not tend to see from a man who thinks his position is in any way under threat.
And all that talk about Osborne having two jobs and not being able to combine the two roles? For the birds.
Osborne is here to stay and he is still deadly serious about making the Conservatives electable. He knows that balancing the books is part of that – but that it is only a part.
If Ed Miliband is serious about making a “One Nation” charge to the centre ground, he is going to have to barge his way past George Osborne to get there.
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs