Saturday, 15 November 2008

Why George Osborne will stay

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne may have survived his latest encounter with Peter Mandelson at the Spectator Parliamentary Awards, but he has faced rather more intense friendly fire from Conservative voices over the last week than he did during yachtgate.

The usually mild mannered Michael Brown, Independent political commentator and ex-Tory MP, is calling for his head, along with Iain Martin of the Telegraph and a host of other commentators in the paper.

Contrary to Guido Fawkes' attack on The Telegraph, the pressure on Osborne can't be dismissed as a media invention, nor something being stoked by a government machine which has got its act together. These Tory-friendly commentators are clear that they are reflecting the heated debate at all levels within the party which is breaking out into the open.

Today, Tory peer and former party Treasurer Lord Kairns says publicly that he wants Osborne replaced, and his job given to David Davis. Backbenchers are pursuing their concerns about the Treasury team's performance through the 1922 Committtee. William Hague is being promoted most prominently as a replacement, with Chris Grayling. the pro-European Ken Clarke and even John Redwood all having their supporters.

In response, Osborne is reported to be stepping back from his Conservative Central Office and party strategy roles as 'unofficial party chair' for several months at least.

The Guardian reported yesterday that Osborne "admits in private that he is being bested by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling", recognising that momentum and the ability to make the political weather have now shifted back to the government.

That explains why Osborne is desperate to get back onto the front foot. But the aggression of his attack, warning of a collapse of Sterling, this morning is a high risk move: it could well become seen as another unforced error of judgement.

So the pressure is clearly on. But I would confidently predict that the Shadow Chancellor will stay in post.

In part, the scale of public criticism would now make moving Osborne too great a climbdown for the leadership.

And that is especially true because Osborne has become a lightning conductor for a concerted challenge David Cameron's political and policy strategy - on both tax cuts, and on how to oppose the government - by those who want a significant change of direction without wanting to be publicly critical of the leader himself.

So David Cameron can't afford to respond to the pressure with the defenestration of his closest political ally.

But nor does that necessarily mean that Cameron will stand firm. The height of his modernising agenda was in his party conference pitch for the job. Since then, he has from the early days of his leadership much more frequently given ground to pressure from the party's right than has been recognised. He has kept the party in its comfort zone, praising the party for already having modernised (by electing him) and rarely challenging members on the need to change further.

If the Tory right keeps up the pressure on Osborne, the signs are that they may well get some substantive shifts in Tory policy rightwards on spending and tax.

If they fail to also get the symbolic scalp they are calling for, they may not mind too much about that.

1 comment:

Robert said...

And to think Michael Howard urged Osborne to stand for the Tory leadership in 2005...

Given Brown could bring back Mandelson - supposedly against the advice of key members of his inner circle - one does wonder why the Tories haven't had it in themselves to re-instate one of their 'big beasts' to a frontbench position.

In fact, I'd like to see Michael Crick do one of his 'do you recognise?' segments at the expense the shadow cabinet, flashing a picture of Dominic Grieve to a sample of the great British public and watching them umm and err.

Don't get me wrong, some of the new breed of 2001 and 2005 Tories are perfectly capable of scoring hits on Labour. I'm sure Chris Grayling will continue his ascent - he is the attack dog's attack dog (as David Blunkett can attest) yet carries his fist in the velvet glove of an eminently reasonable manner, both on camera and in the flesh (I interviewed him once for a local paper).

Politics - especially in Britain - is a team-sport. Even in the US, VP selections usually follow the strategy of 'balancing' the ticket. So I'm surprised Cameron hasn't resurrected a few grizzled warhorses to offset the ranks of callow Cameroons.

(Rarely, a politician will spring into the limelight with natural gravitas - Obama is rare in this aspect, as in so many others - but others accumulate this weight over time - hence Hague's moment almost certainly came a decade too soon).

With Tory factionalism less prominent now than it has been for as long as I can remember, I expect there would be much Conservative cheer if Ken Clarke was wheeled out in place of Osborne to face Alistair Darling. On the opposite wing of the party - and the opposite end of the personality scale - is Redwood, whom I respectfully suggest we lefties should underestimate at our peril. The man they called 'The Vulcan' was eerily effective on Friday's Any Questions, raising a fair amount of applause and, at one point, sternly rebuking Kevin Maguire of the Mirror. Best of luck to the Young Fabian team taking him on in tonight's debate .