Mark Stuart: What sort of Tory is Boy George, the school swot who became Chancellor?

OVER the past fortnight, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been compared to all sorts of previous Conservative politicians.

Before his Budget, George Osborne let it be known that he saw himself as a blend between Nigel Lawson and Michael Heseltine.

After the Budget, the Labour leader Ed Miliband compared him to the former Chancellor, “Norman Lamont with an iPod”.

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So, who is right? Are there any similarities between “Boy George” and this trio of much older Tory grandees?

We can dispense fairly quickly with Osborne’s clumsy attempts to compare himself with Michael Heseltine. For a start, Heseltine never served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but assumed the rather pompous job title of the President of the Board of Trade.

And yet it suits Osborne’s current economic strategy to align himself with Heseltine’s earlier policy of creating enterprise zones. Back in the early 1980s, “Hezza” attempted to kick-start economic activity in places such as Liverpool; now Osborne is repeating the same failed policy with cities such as Leeds and Sheffield.

In reality, while Heseltine retained a strong belief that the state should play a key role in boosting the economy, Osborne is much more of a natural Thatcherite.

Osborne’s trick, very much in tandem with David Cameron, is to use a different language from the “divide and rule” style of Thatcher.

Thus, the Chancellor used his Budget speech to claim that “a society should not just be judged by the strength of its economy alone, but also by the compassion of its people”.

By grafting on the language of “One-Nation” Conservatism to the otherwise Thatcherite policies of the coalition, Osborne hopes to blunt the charge coming from Ed Miliband that he is merely Norman Lamont Mark Two.

A battle is raging between Miliband, attempting to portray Osborne & Co. as the pantomime baddies of old, while the Tory hierarchy insists that they are cuddly new Conservatives.

Miliband would rather we voters recalled the early 1990s, when Norman Lamont made his often misquoted remarks that “rising unemployment and the recession have been the price we have had to pay to get inflation down. That price is well worth paying”.

That is why, in his own reply to the Budget statement, Miliband reminded us of Lamont’s famous “Je Ne Regrette Rien” comments, following Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992.

In truth, George Osborne has much more in common with Nigel Lawson. Both politicians rose rapidly through the ranks to become Chancellor just nine years after becoming an MP. Both are naturally prone to arrogance: Lawson’s deriving from natural self-confidence; Osborne’s a sign of immaturity. There are also parallels in terms of policy. Osborne shares Lawson’s instinct to simplify the tax system, holding the long-term aim of merging national insurance and income tax together.

Lawson is best remembered for his bold Budget of 1988, in which he slashed the top rate of income tax from 60 to 40 per cent.

Osborne would dearly love to return the higher band of tax to 40 per cent, but he can’t reverse Gordon Brown’s increase to 50 per cent because of the dire economic circumstances that the country faces.

In fact, Lawson’s long-term legacy, bequeathed to all future Conservative Chancellors, has been to turn income tax into a Tory shibboleth.

In his excellent book, The Chancellors, the late Edmund Dell sagely predicted back in 1996 that if “there is a need for more revenue, the most difficult method for a Conservative government is to raise income tax rates, even if that is the preferable course”.

As a proper Thatcherite, Osborne, along with most of the Conservative backbenches, feels a deep-seated pain in having to maintain such high levels of direct taxation.

However, Osborne shares an advantage over Lawson in that the former enjoys an excellent working relationship with the Prime Minister, whereas the latter fell out with the occupant of Number 10 in spectacular fashion when he resigned as Chancellor in 1989.

Osborne’s close personal bond with David Cameron is the much under-rated linchpin of this coalition, every bit as important to its fate as the good relationship enjoyed between Nick Clegg and the Prime Minister.

But perhaps we are missing the point here. The very fact that Osborne has seen fit to style himself alongside other established Tory politicians suggests a certain immaturity.

Deep down, George is still very much “Boy George”, the grandchild of Margaret Thatcher, barely out of short trousers. He’s the archetypal school swot, furiously boning up on his latest economic textbooks, super-keen to gain recognition from his older Tory forebears.

Ironically, the fact that Osborne & Co. lack any coherent strategy could prove the Government’s saving grace. The one consistent theme of the coalition so far has been its pragmatism.

Thus, we’ve seen very un-Thatcherite U-turns on everything from school sports to privatising the forests, and most recently, a partial about face on the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

You see, not very far beneath George Osborne’s surface coating of arrogance and hubris is a frightened student politician who hasn’t an earthly idea of what he is doing. Give me the pantomime baddies like Norman Lamont any day: at least then, we’d know when to boo and hiss.

Mark Stuart is a political analyst and writer from York who has written biographies of Douglas Hurd and John Smith.