DURING the mid-1990s, George Osborne tried to enter journalism. It didn’t work out and his future was uncertain, but he got out of his difficulties. He was taken on by the Conservative Research Department, before being promoted to work as a special adviser.
His Secretary of State, Douglas Hogg, was engulfed by the BSE crisis, and the Conservatives were destroyed in the 1997 election.
But Osborne got out of that one, becoming William Hague’s political secretary.
Hague was humiliated in the 2001 election.
But Osborne got out of that one, too. He became the MP for the safe Tory seat of Tatton. (He was fortunate that the independent MP for the seat, Martin Bell, kept his promise not to stand again for a second term).
By the 2005 election, he was Shadow Chief Secretary in Michael Howard’s Shadow Cabinet.
Howard lost the 2005 election.
Osborne got out of that one, too. Soon after the election, he was appointed as Shadow Chancellor, a post he continued to hold under the leadership of the man whose leadership campaign he ran, David Cameron. In so far as anyone was Cameron’s director of strategy, it was Osborne.
Cameron failed to win the 2010 election outright.
And Osborne got out of that one, too. Soon after the election, he was appointed as Chancellor.
Now growth is slowing – and the international economy is racked by woes on a scale unseen since at least the 1970s. And then there is all that trouble about his role in the appointment with Andy Coulson and his relationship with Rupert Murdoch.
So how’s he going to get out of this one, then? He won’t, chorus his critics – that startling combination of Ed Balls at the Labour end and some members of his own party (while Boris Johnson broods in the wings) at the other.
Osborne, they agree, is a lightweight with a patchy record, whose failure to challenge Brown’s profligacy cost the Conservatives the election. As so often, the truth has more light and shade.
No, Osborne didn’t foresee the crash. But he helped to force Labour’s spending plans down after the 2005 election to where he said they should be then: the rate of spending, he had argued, shouldn’t exceed the rate of growth.
No, Osborne didn’t plan a bigger reduction in spending growth. But once he settled on an austerity programme, he stuck to it. It was Cameron, not Osborne, who wobbled on the matter during the 2009 Party Conference and at Davos the following spring.
No, Osborne didn’t win the election. But his audacious inheritance tax and stamp duty plans of 2007 helped to frighten Gordon Brown off an election that autumn, and allowed the Tories to gain a psychological ascendancy over him that they never lost. And now he’s ensconced in the Treasury, holding one of the great offices of state, we hear rather less of that lightweight charge. The spending reductions may be excessively weighted towards the end of this Parliament and the growth agenda very hesitant near the start of this one.
None the less, his deficit reduction plan has satisfied the markets to date, and serves as the lodestar of the Government’s political strategy. Conservative commentators have come to see him as a heavyweight, providing stability, certainty and a sense of direction to an administration otherwise prone to U-turns.
Two further points to be made – one about his politics, one about his character.
First, Osborne will be worrying about what the party thinks as much as what the markets or the voters think.
One day, some day, he would like to be Prime Minister when his old political ally David Cameron stands down after a further election victory. This may never happen, either because Cameron doesn’t win – or doesn’t stand down if he does. But the Chancellor is none the less preparing for it. He presides over a smooth-running political operation, which his former chief of staff turned MP, Matthew Hancock, and his main economic adviser, Rupert Harrison keep in good order. He spends a great deal of time on making himself available to backbenchers.
Any autumn growth announcement, like his carefully-worked speeches to Party Conference, will be designed to bolster his position with the party faithful. He is a ferocious networker, and has laboriously constructed a vast web of media and political contacts both in Britain and abroad.
Second, this networking is an extension of Osborne’s character as well as his ambitions. He has the self-assertiveness that I associate with people brought up in large familes, and extraordinary reserves of quick-wittedness and self-confidence.
He has always married a gleeful enjoyment of the game of politics, with its reverses and absurdities, to a more thoughtful hinterland: he is the only senior Conservative politician to have grasped how poorly the Tories are performing as a party of aspiration, and one of the very few to have real strategic grasp – which helps to explain why he’s prospered despite so much reverses.
Though soberly and relentlessly on message when before an audience or a camera, when off it he’s shown a love of life and a zest for politics that matched the young politician he is – or has been.
After all, he recently turned 40. At much the same time, his personal judgment came under a scrutiny unknown since the Depraska controversy – and which will drag on for far, far longer. His political and economic judgement is once again centre-stage. Ed Balls is waiting to strike. Boris Johnson is prowling ceaselessly, like a shaggy lion stalking a sleek gazelle. His enemies are circling. The slightest hint of a disagreement with the Prime Minister is pounced on by a Fleet Street eager to rescript the Blair-Brown wars in a Tory setting – the very danger that both Cameron and Osborne have worked for so long to avoid.
As he sat alongside the Prime Minister recently in the Commons while Hackgate broke, I thought that the Chancellor looked like a man who has seen a ghost.
Whether so or not, George Osborne is growing up. He is experiencing the rite of passage that politicians must undergo as they pass from the youth of their politics, with its change, optimism and hope to its middle age, with its sense of horizons narrowing, opportunities going and time passing.
Paul Goodman is a former Conservative MP and the executive editor of the ConservativeHome website.