George Osborne’s first taste of political leadership came aged 12. At his prep school, Colet Court, he took charge of a party for school election in 1983. The Chancellor’s chosen party (as the forthcoming schools guide will discuss) was not the Conservatives, but his own Independent Conservatives. Sadly, history does not record what caused this schism — but it does seem to be the first evidence of Osborne’s modernising tendencies. He has always exhibited a very distinct form of Conservatism, and one that has recently moved in an intriguing new direction.
At the beginning of David Cameron’s leadership, you would have put Osborne down as the ultimate Tory moderniser. He was far more socially liberal than Cameron and more metropolitan in outlook — very much the product of his London upbringing. His mother had worked for Amnesty International and protested against the Vietnam war (Cameron is the son of a stockbroker and a country magistrate). It was Osborne who persuaded Cameron that the policies and tactics that had worked to such great effect in the 1992 general election wouldn’t do so a decade later. At Tory party conferences, he would offer little homilies on why he wasn’t offering tax cuts.
Then just before the 2007 conference, when the party was preparing for an early election and possible defeat, Osborne confided to this magazine that he was not an ‘über-moderniser’. This shift was influenced by Andy Coulson, whom Osborne had, disastrously, urged Cameron to hire. The weapon that allowed him to scare off Gordon Brown from holding an early election was a pledge to lift everyone but millionaires out of the inheritance tax bracket. This was a reminder not only of Osborne’s love of the political coup de théâtre, but also his intellectual flexibility. Tax cuts, as he was to find out, have lost none of their appeal in this modern era.
The next year brought another evolution in Osborne’s thinking. The financial crisis meant that cuts became the order of the day. At the Tory conference in 2009, Osborne began to outline his fiscal retrenchment plan. This has, so far, been his defining mission in the Treasury, but it is fair to say that he regards it as necessary rather than exciting. The Chancellor has no economics training; he read history at Oxford, and balancing the books is not what made him come into politics. This is, perhaps, why he likes to see himself as the ‘Chancellor who takes the broader view’. He is now sharing this view a little more. His allies say he was particularly passionate about the speech he gave to the CBI last month — a robust defence of the openness of the British economy against both the left and the populist right. He sees economic policy as a kind of foreign policy — an open economy is true to Britain’s long-standing commitment to free trade and key to its future success.
On Pfizer’s bid for AstraZeneca, Osborne believed that if the approach from this American company were turned down for political reasons, it would send a very damaging signal to investors around the world about the direction Britain was taking. But the clearest outline of his credo was in a speech that was not publicised at all — one delivered to a dinner held by the Centre for Policy Studies conference last week. He was guest of honour at its Liberty conference in honour of Margaret Thatcher. The Chancellor is far more of a Thatcherite than a Conservative, and he let his hair down among friends. The speech was far more triumphalist and rhetorical than his televised ones. His language was a fusion of Kennedy-style new frontier liberalism and Thatcherite grit. There was much talk of ‘raising the standard of liberty’. Indeed, as Osborne reminded the crowd, he likes the concept of liberty so much that he named his daughter after it.
The peroration of Osborne’s speech sounded very much like how he would like history to remember his tenure at the Treasury. Osborne declared that, ‘Five years ago, people were writing this country off, weighed down by huge deficits and fast rising debt, our economy much shrunk, penal tax rates on enterprise.’ People said Britain couldn’t pay its way in the world, he said, but he ‘refused to listen to that pessimism’ and ‘applied Conservative ideas that the state had to live within its means’. Now the rest of the world isn’t writing Britain off, but talking us up, he proclaimed — to rapturous applause.
But the speech was about far more than just the economy. It was a far-reaching speech, of precisely the type that landed Theresa May in such trouble when she outlined her broader political vision 15 months ago. The Chancellor had much to say about education and welfare reform, two areas in which he says a Tory-only government would do more. But what was most striking about the speech was its heavy emphasis on foreign affairs. The Chancellor, it seemed, was etching out his own foreign policy.
He sounded strikingly hawkish, proclaiming that ‘our generation’s mission is to confront and overcome this latest bout of western self-doubt’. He invoked Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as he said that ‘against those who say militant Islamism is bound to conquer, we say we believe in liberty’. The speech would have done nothing to dampen speculation in Westminster that he wants to become Foreign Secretary after the election.
A principle-heavy speech seeking to put steel into the spine of the West may sound a odd coming from a politician better known for his success as a calculating political machine. But the Chancellor could not resist the chance to remind his audience that Mrs Thatcher was a pragmatist. As he put it, ‘She was a winner. She picked her battles carefully and she made her occasional retreat.’ It was a not-so-coded plea for an understanding of the compromises of office.
Two years ago, Osborne’s Budget had unravelled and he was booed at the Paralympics. There were murmurings about how he might have to be moved if the Tories were to recover in the polls. But now he boasts higher approval ratings than the leader of his own party, as well as the leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
And we can now see the Chancellor carving out distinct political space as the champion of liberty and openness. He wants to be the optimist of British politics, the tribune of sunny-side-up Conservatism.
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