Osborne revealed

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2008

Could you imagine George Osborne as Prime Minister? Robert Harris can, according to an in-depth profile of the Tory shadow chancellor in July’s Prospect magazine, which is well worth reading if you have a spare 10 minutes.

Though Osborne’s star has shone since last October’s Tory conference pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m – the acclaim which greeted it is credited with forcing Gordon Brown to cancel his ‘snap election’ plans – he finds it hard to live down the tag of being a schoolboy version of Peter Mandelson. Osborne appears to be obsessed by – and happy to be seen to be obsessed by – smart-arse political tactics:

Most weeks he helps Cameron prepare for prime minister’s questions, and he clearly relishes his own chance to land blows on Brown. I see him when he emerges from one of these sessions, and he tells me of the trap they have just laid—a trick question that’s designed to embarrass the PM about not campaigning in Crewe. It is a Westminster pyrotechnic that’s quickly spent, but to Osborne, laughing and gleeful, it is clearly the meat and drink of politics.

His lightweight response and shrill tone over the collapse of Northern Rock is also contrasted with the heft of Vince Cable’s insight:

Osborne’s performance on Northern Rock—an issue central to his brief as shadow chancellor—was lacklustre. He spent too much time berating the government without suggesting what should happen to the stricken bank. The deftness and authority of the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable showed up Osborne’s weakness. When it was clear that the Rock would have to be nationalised, Osborne came up with some procedural nicety that allowed him to continue opposing the government. A colleague agrees that Osborne handled the Rock in a highly political way—but suggests that this is his general approach: “George’s starting position in any debate is to work out the political position he wants to end up in—on the Rock he wanted to end up on the opposite side to Gordon Brown.” However, the City—which Osborne has been trying to court—was not impressed. He seemed to be putting party before country. “His language was sometimes ill-judged, and he showed too much relish at the mess Brown was in,” said one bigwig.

Cameron and Osborne have been likened to Blair and Brown ad nauseum. For Cameron, the comparison doesn’t seem too far off the mark: like Blair, who was a CND-supporting Old Labour candidate under Michael Foot and metamorphosed into a neo-con echo chamber, Cameron appears just as comfortable in his own skin today as he did when writing the Tories’ ugly 2005 manifesto. (Blair was, of course, a much braver party leader, never happier than when challenging his party. Time after time, Cameron has buckled to the will of his unreconstructed backbenchers).

Yet Brown and Osborne are far more different than similar. Though both would reckon themselves master tacticians (and Brown undoubtedly was… once), Osborne is a dilettante, utterly fascinated by process and faintly bored by the stuff of policy. Oddly, it is perhaps easier to imagine him as Prime Minister, where a broad overview is essential, than it is as Chancellor, when a firm grip on your briefs is indispensable if you don’t want to get caught with your trousers down.

That the Tories’ two big beasts lack a Brown-like centre of gravity – someone able to translate tactics into policy – is not a problem while they are in opposition (they may even feel it’s an advantage). But it’s a lacuna which runs the risk of being cruelly and publicly exposed the nearer the Tories get to forming a government.