by Kevin Meagher
Harold Wilson’s often tritely-invoked dictum that a week is a long time in politics certainly does seem to sum-up George Osborne’s terribilis autem sabbati (if my Latin for ‘terrible week’ is indeed accurate).
From all-conquering chancellor with a ‘long-term economic plan’ to yesterday’s man, forced into a screeching U-turn over disability payment cuts. Will he survive? It’s fashionable to write-off the Chancellor’s prospects of succeeding David Cameron as Prime Minister, but he is resilient, and come the Armageddon, its likely Osborne will ride out of the nuclear shelter atop a giant mutant cockroach, the last two species to survive.
More prosaically, it’s worth looking at the batting averages of previous post-war prime ministers who took over from their predecessors while in government. What did they do immediately beforehand?
Tellingly, each of them either served as foreign secretary or chancellor of the exchequer.
Foreign secretary Anthony Eden replaced Churchill in 1955. Chancellor Harold MacMillan succeeded Eden in 1957. While Alec Douglas-Home, another foreign secretary, followed on from MacMillan.
Skipping forward to 1976 and Harold Wilson’s resignation, he was of course succeeded by James Callaghan, his foreign secretary, while Mrs Thatcher was replaced by her chancellor, John Major.
Gordon Brown was, of course, chancellor – or prime minister (domestic affairs) as one wag once out it – before replacing Tony Blair.
(Indeed, of three post-war chancellors who moved next door to became prime minister, two of them, Harold MacMillan and John Major, were also foreign secretary before becoming chancellor).
What does this tell us? Most obviously, if you aspire to be prime minister and your party is currently in government, precedent shows your chances are radically improved if you’re already serving as either chancellor or foreign secretary.
Osborne clearly falls into the first category (for now), but might his advancement to the top job be more assured if he now vacates the Treasury?
Gordon Brown joked that there are only ever two kinds of chancellor. Those who fail and those that get out in time. Osborne is clearly drowning in his current role, unable to hit his own growth or deficit reduction targets (or even to see the punches coming), as his carefully accumulated political stock rapidly depletes.
Yesterday’s YouGov poll on what voters think of him made devastating reading. Just eight per cent of voters overall, (and less than a fifth of Conservatives) think he is up to the job of being PM.
Another Brown Rule (superstition, really) was that voters are sick of you after seven years and then ‘you’re on the down slope’ in terms of public esteem.
So given he’s approaching six years in the job, might we see a post-referendum reshuffle where Osborne volunteers to swap jobs with Phillip Hammond (who as shadow chief secretary to the treasury served as Osborne’s deputy as before 2010).
There was a rumour to this effect before last year’s election. The foreign office would offer Osborne sunnier climes – both literal and metaphorical – to rebuild his reputation after this week’s rolling disaster.
I bet giant cockroaches like the sun.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut