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George Osborne, the insubstantial chancellor?

13 November 2012

4:00 PM

13 November 2012

4:00 PM

George Osborne’s public interventions on issues other than the economy are few and far between, which is why his article in today’s Times merits attention. In it, Osborne analyses some of the causes of Barack Obama’s victory and then applies his findings to the 2015 election in Britain. On the basis of this article, we can conclude that the Tories’ leading strategist expects to fight the next election in a challenging economic climate against two men, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband (in that order), who he intends to blame for causing Britain’s ills. He will present Ed Balls and Ed Miliband (in that order) as reactionaries who exist beyond the fringes of reasonable political and economic opinion, existing solely to protect their party’s vested interests rather than the ordinary voter. (One wonders what Lynton Crosby makes of that plan.)

Osborne has been composing variations on this theme for some time; but today he offered something a little different. In addition to the economic message, Osborne illustrates how Britain has become a socially liberal country that favours gay marriage and so forth, liberties which he supports on principle (and he has a voting record to prove it). Then he adds that ‘successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead’. The implication is that the Tory party in the shires must share his social beliefs if it is to prosper.


This brings me to Janan Ganesh’s recently published biography of George Osborne (reviewed by Lloyd Evans in this week’s magazine). Ganesh argues, convincingly, that Osborne has matured in office. The flexibility that marked his early career, which encouraged him to take tactical risks such as alienating the Tory base, matching Labour’s spending plans and promising an inheritance tax cut in 2007, has been rigidified by the emergence of several philosophical red lines. The most important of these are fiscal responsibility inspired by present circumstances and social liberalism informed by his metropolitan upbringing. Osborne will not compromise on those subjects, Ganesh intimates, because he cannot.

Osborne’s red lines are evident between the paragraphs of his strategic assessment in the Times: the attack on Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility is clear, as is the assault on the social conservatism of the Tory grassroots. Yet he only uses the word ‘principle’ once (in relation to his support for gay marriage and the abortion laws as presently constituted) and he does not use the word ‘conviction’ at all.

The chancellor should not to be so wary of using those words. Barack Obama expressed his political convictions (erroneous though they may be) clearly, while Mitt Romney often flip-flopped from one expedient to the next. An old hand whose opinion I value highly denigrated Romney on the grounds that he ‘would say anything to get in’. That phrase might apply to the George Osborne of 2010, the ingénue who frightened the market’s horses in order to win a cheap political buck at Labour’s expense, then paid the price (in terms of the political narrative) with a double dip recession; but does it apply to George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer? The established criticism of Osborne is that he is influential yet insubstantial. It would be to the Tories’ benefit, to say nothing of his own, if Osborne professed his political substance more readily.

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Show comments
  • Richard

    “matching Labour’s spending plans” – a fatal mistake, which should never have been made!

    The mistake was made because of a misreading of the reason the Conservatives failed in 2005 – Osborne and Cameron clearly felt that it was because Howard (rightly) campaigned to reduce public spending from Brown’s absurd and damaging levels.

    When Osborne made that stupid pledge, it was already clear that public spending was on an unsustainable trajectory and all he achieved by it, was to blunt the Conservative attack on Labour’s profligacy!

  • Earlshill

    Osborne’s analysis in the Times of the Obama victory and the lessons to be learned from it was as flawed and superficial as we have come to expect from the author of “sharing the proceeds of growth” It’s the analysis of a chancer, someone who defines all voters, who he no doubt holds in complete contempt, as nothing more than easily manipulated members of blocs, whether minorities, women, etc. So in the absence of any political beliefs or strategic vision, Osborne is reduced to mimicking the Labour view of the electorate.
    But he’s going to be wrong again. By 2015 voters won’t be remotely interested in gay marriage or any of the other fixations of the idle metropolitan class. They will only want to know who will protect their rapidly diminishing standard of living; all other issues will pale into insignificance.

  • ButcombeMan

    Osborne is hopeless.. A soon as he took over he should have had all perm secs in, with optlons for 5, 10, 15 & 20%, immediate cuts to budget.

    He should have been absolutely RUTHLESS, at the beginning, (when he he had the political room for manouvere),. He was not.

    He has dithered about,. got locked into silly pet, Treasury schemes (eg pasties).

    He has no basic common sense.

    Utterly pointless and incompetent.

    The plus? He is a lot better than Balls.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Osborne is precisely incorrect about the significance of the recent US election to the Cameroons’ chances.

    The US presidential election was a sort of “meh”, status quo affair. The incumbent president lost considerable support, with his popular vote totals dropping well over 10% from 2008 levels. Meanwhile, his opponent was a husk, empty of principle, and drew millions fewer votes than even the execrable McCain. Eric Ericksson said it perfectly beforehand. It was the candidate who would lose to anybody vs. the candidate who couldn’t possibly beat anybody. Somebody had to lose.

    Meanwhile, the US Congress also maintained, and most incumbents won reelection. So that too was a “meh” status quo affair. No wave, little clear ideals expressed, the electorate simply milled about and did some mild housekeeping, as there was nothing to really affirmatively vote for, this time through. Sorta like the election that brought the Cameroons into government a couple years ago, you see. The one clear statement made by the electorate was that the Tea Party revolt was consolidated, as most all of those freshman congress members were reelected, even as Obama nudged out Willard. A split decision, as it were.

    So yes, Osborne is precisely incorrect about the recent US election, which more paralleled the inconclusive election that brought on the Cameroons 2 years ago, and is not a model for coming years. For that, Osborne best look to the Tea Party as the type of dynamic he should expect.

    • HooksLaw

      if only you knew what you were talking about you might be worth reading.

      ‘Only four of the 16 Senate candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express won on Tuesday,’
      ‘Some of the most visible House Republicans elected in 2010 with Tea Party backing were defeated in their first bids for reelection. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) were defeated by opponents who cast them as too extreme.
      Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who last summer
      won the presidential Iowa straw poll and briefly led in national GOP
      presidential primary polls, barely squeaked out a reelection win against
      Democrat Jim Graves’
      ‘The Senate races in Missouri and Indiana provide compelling evidence that far right-wing candidates were a liability for the GOP in 2012.’


      ‘unless and until tea partyers can find candidates who have broader appeal than incumbents, it should get out of the business of primarying GOP House and Senate incumbents. Indiana was a disaster. And it will be a disaster to challenge viable, centrist conservatives in 2014 unless there is a more electable alternative. Otherwise, as in Delaware in 2010 and Missouri in 2012, the tea party is simply doing the work of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.’

      Only the thickest graduates from Professor Thick’s School of Thickness for Dummies would draw the conclusions you do. But hey, as Visiting (the real world briefly) Emeritus Professor of Thickness Professor Vulture says, ‘Why worry about the real world when you can invent your own.’

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Quoting from the hard Left media, is that it? You ignorant grauniads are all alike.

        The Tea Party revolution in 2010 brought on the largest US House flip in 3/4 century… 63 seats. They came into the 2012 election in control of 240 seats, and will come out of this election with 235 seata minimum, all while carrying a boat anchor named Willard the Mittens around their neck. Very nice performance by the Tea Party. Very nice.

        Your leftist buddies had to dislodge at LEAST 2-3 dozen of those seats, in order to turn back that 2010 Tea Party wave. They didn’t even come close, and the Tea Party hold on that Congress has been

        C O N S O L I D A T E D.

        It will be a FAR more conservative House, too. I can name you 3-4 firebreathers that have been elected, and the few losers were mostly wet noodles, unworthy of Tea Party support.

        Oh and by the way, the US Senate was split 53-47, and is now split 55-45, not much difference if you understand how the Senate operates. And remember, additional wets and leftists have been expelled, due to the Tea Party influence, including Kent Conrad in North Dakota, although as previously mentioned, you’re too ignorant to understand why that’s so, as you know so little about US politics.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          Oh, and the 2014 offyear election is going to be a Tea Party jubilee, fyi. That’s what happens in year 6 of a lame duck president’s term, as we know historically. And Obama is the lamest of ducks, even now.

          What to expect? More RINOs whacked in primaries, and more conservatives elected to Congress, courtesy of the Tea Party. A “meh”, status quo election in 2012, much like the Cameroons’ in 2010. And then the deluge in 2014.

          Yes, Osborne has read this one a bit distorted. He’ll see where he’s headed on the first Tuesday of November 2014, when those off year election returns come in (that’s assuming the government holds onto power ’til then).

  • Valentine

    There is a party that is economically right wing and socially Liberal, it’s called…………..the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS.

    Osborne and Cameron are Lib Dems, they are not Conservatives.

    Our politics are becoming a farce. How can it be democratic that all three parties at Westminster essentially agree on most issues like abortion, gays, europe immigration et al? I’m convinced we need electoral reform and Proportional Representation, then people will have real choice and can vote for who they truly want without it being a wasted vote.

  • Yoann

    The Tory party needs to get rid of Osborne and Cameron if it is to prosper.

    That is all.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yes. You’re right! LOL Imagine a Tory Party comprised of Boris Johnson as PM and Ken Clarke as Chancellor. How popular would that be? I think we can safely say: a lot more!!

  • Rhoda Klapp

    If the Republican mistake was to put up as candidate a privileged individual who appeared to know nothing of ordinary people’s lives and to have no discernible principles, what does Osborne propose to do in 2015?

  • Jon Rosenberg

    Is this the week that the right wing of the blogasphere woke up? There has been a sense of drift, not merely from the top of politics at number ten, but throughout the right-wing of the internet. Before the general election in 2010 there could be no doubt that the right wing held most of the strong positions on the net. Yes, there were a fair number of left-wing blogs and some of them were even getting decent readership, however, those of the right so out numbered them that it was an even greater surprise at how little this advantage played out in the actual election result.

    Push forward a year and it felt that most right wing blogs had devolved to in-fighting. Their targets were Cameron, Clegg, Cameron, Cable, Cameron, Osborne, Cameron, anyone else in the coalition who had recently said something with which one person disapproved. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, in a healthy democracy ideas have to be tested and defended, policies should be scrutinised and examined and political leaders need to have all of the above done to them, if only because it’s so much fun.

    Now, though, with the greatest British bastion of left wing arrogance, the BBC, twisting in the wind, it would appear that the right wing of the internet in Britain has finally woken up from its seemingly endless navel gazing and remembered that there are in fact still battles to win outside government and the party itself.

    It maybe that the election of Ed Milliband as leader of the Labour partyand the appointment of Ed Balls as shadow chancellor were the biggest reason for this torpor and lack of self discipline. After all, Milliband was seen as weak, insubstantial and not long for this political world, where as Balls was so hated by parts of the right (and let’s be honest, by huge sections of the left as well) that they would inevitably cut their own throats for the enjoyment and merriment of a grateful nation.

    It didn’t happen and it won’t happen. Milliband isn’t the world’s strongest political performer, nor its most agile, but he has guts and he has stamina. Balls is still offering the Conservatives many, many targets, but he remains an aggressive force, one which can lead raids on the public mood. His main weapons are endless lies about the economy and graceless outrage over matters which are often far more complex that he would willingly admit, but it can be and has been effective.

    These things given it’s just as well that Osborne has taken up his sword in the name of the coalition right at this moment. He will never be a well loved member of his party or of this government. He is too acute in debate, without a compensatory charisma or humour. But he is effective and he can pick holes in other people’s positions as well as any politician of recent years. Remember how he gently kicked over the SNP’s economic certitudes not that long ago?

    The damage done to the British economy by the last government is still so vast that it remains difficult to wholly comprehend and it’s absolutely right that our current Chancellor of the Exchequer should remind us of these facts… as often as possible.

    • Vulture

      You are delusional, mate, if you think that George Osborne represents the ‘Right’ or indeed any interest group or philosophy beyond his chums Mandelson, Deripaska, Rothschild and the other gilded white trash wbho were with him on that yacht.
      Delusional too if you think there are any votes to be had in Gay marriage or any of the other modish causes that Dave and Oiky embrace. Rather the reverse.
      It is a measure of his ( and our) decadence that this puffball holds the office that he does.
      For the first time in history I agree with that imbecile Lindsay: Osborne is not fit to run a piggy bank, let alone regulate a real one. Her is out of touch, out of time and represents pure electoral poison as the good voters of Corby will demonstrate in noi uncertain fashion the day after tomorrow.

      • Daniel Maris

        It has to be said that a consensus is now in place that Osborne is pretty useless. Fraser Nelson seems to have come round to that view, along with many others.

      • HooksLaw

        No you are delusional and wrong headed and by no means do you and your extreme opinions represent the right. You are also massively removed from the centre which is what wins elections.
        Republican nut jobs alienated the chunk of the electorate they needed to win not just the Presidency but the senate. They even lost seats in the House.
        But all you do is invent your own truth to keep you happy in your little world.

        In American terms the likes of the Kennedy’s of course were/are immensely remote and privileged.

        • Vulture

          So you think that Osborne is popular and that Gay marriage is a vote winner?

          We shall see tomorrow in Corby what wins and loses elections.

          The chunk of the electorate that needs to be won over are the alienated white working class who voted for Thatcher; the hundreds of thousands of loyal Tories who have fled the party – many of them too Ukip – since disastrous Dave took over; and the ethnic minorities
          ( eg. ALL Muslims and Caribbean and African Christians) who believe that Gay marriage is blasphemy.

          Set these against the four and a half Guardian readers who might, could, should but never actually would vote Tory whom Osborne’s ‘social liberalism’ is aimed at and I think we can see which of us is the real ‘nut job’.

  • David Lindsay

    George Osborne, the insubstantial chancellor?


  • PuzzledofWestSussex

    I find it curious that George Osborne seems more concerned with re-defining marriage than devising a tax regime whereby Starbucks, Google, Amazon and Apple et al pay honest amounts of Corporation Tax. Or is he just avoiding the subject as he can’t do anything about it?

    • HooksLaw

      Osborne was remarking on the surprising level of aggressive tax avoidance he found rife from virtually the first day he walked into the treasury. A significant sum has been set aside to combat it – £900 million in 2010..

      Furthermore Osborne has ‘recruited’ other countries into the fight as well.

      So in fact your claim is entirely bogus. The 16 people who ‘like ‘ your erroneous summation must be feeling very silly.

  • TomTom

    It is fantastic that Britain is now nothing more than a plastic replica of the USA and that the puppets who dance in the political system are mere cutouts of US uppetmasters. Of course Obama is the Global Emperor and everyone must pay full obeisance to the Emperor……no doubt MI6 is busy shredding the Broadwell/Kelley Emails they have on file. It is a superb achievement of that 1906 Liberal Government to destroy the British Empire and to render Britain an appendage of the US Imperial Domain. Looking at the Daily Show one can see the marionettes in Britain as wooden puppets dancing to US themes

    • HooksLaw

      Warped. I presume people like you are the reason its so hard to come across tin foil.

      • TomTom

        If you wear so much tin foil Trevor noone can buy any, that’s clear. It is demonstrably true that Britain had an empire in 1912 and was the world’s largest CREDITOR nation with annual invisibles income >£150 billion at modern values. By 1921 it was in hock to the USA……by 1940 it was insolvent…….by 1948 the USA had 66% global gold reserves and Britain borrowed 50% GDP in the form of Marshall Aid. If that is warped, I suggest you are the one that is out of kilter and would do well to think how Norwegians view Quisling – presumably your poster-boy.

  • don logan

    Osborne is vapid and truely uninspirational; his inconsequential musings on just about anything highlights to everyone that he’s still there and remind us all what an utter dick he is.

    • Daniel Maris

      Fair comment.

      • telemachus

        What the hell is fair about this vapid analysis
        In personal terms many said Gordon, the most successful chancellor of the last 100 years, was a dickhead but he engineered the most prosperous period this country has ever had and then when the yanks blew us off course saved not just us but also the US and its banking system

        • don logan

          God you’re tedious.

  • George_Arseborne

    Another confuse subject in which Osborne will mess up again. He is out of touch, that is clear. Conservativtives are not social liberals so all what he says is a myth. Labour like the Democrat fought for social justice and gay right became recognised. So Osborne is just pretending bbecause his best tool being the Economy is slipping away from him. He must be suffering from ROMNESIA.

    • Chris lancashire

      I’m not quite clear, from the above, what you are saying. I think it is that Osborne is streets ahead of his immediate two predecessors. In which case you’re absolutely right.

    • David Lindsay

      In better days, Osborne’s chemical and sexual habits, or at any rate the fact that they are public knowledge, would have disbarred him from public life. He is morally, as well as intellectually, unfit.

      • Chris lancashire

        At least he’s not raving mad like Brown.

        • Amergin Selby

          That is just stupid by any definition of ‘raving mad’. Do try to keep to the subject and make reasoned comment. It helps intelligent debate.

      • HooksLaw

        More smears from a sleazball. You are full of it aren’t you.

  • M. Wenzl

    In the article, he does use the words “striking” and “astonishing” rather a lot.

  • Daniel Maris

    From what I can see, all leading politicians, with the possible exception of Boris Johnson, seem completely divorced from the realities of everyday life as lived by citizens of this country (I stress citizens, not the sort of international glitzy elite that Osborne mixes with).

    I’d like to see some evidence they understand the impact of mass immigration, the fact we’ve moved into a post affluent society where for huge swathes of the lower middle class disposable income is declining year on year, where housing is becoming in increasingly short supply in London and the South East condemning millions to shoe box living.

    I see no evidence. So the rest is all meaningless window dressing designed to please the glitzy elite and save his blushes at dinner parties.

    • telemachus

      Osborne is clearly a realist to be afraid of the charismatic shadow chancellor
      It gladdens me to hear that this weak pumpkin Osborne wants to attack his opposite number in such terms
      This will virtually guarantee a victory for the opposition in 2015

    • HooksLaw

      This would be the Boris Johnson descended from George IV?

      What requirement is there for politicians to be undivorced from the reality of everyday life.
      By the necessities of office all politicians are divorced from ‘ordinary life’. All politicians live privileged existences. Some may pretend otherwise but thats not the point. The best pretenders might win elections but that is even further from the point.

      A politician should leave us all to run our own lives as best we can, that does not require any understanding at all, except one of running a stable healthy economy and managing international relations to do the same. Understanding my frustrations as opposed to yours or someone else even more prejudiced should be the last thing on his/her mind.

      • Daniel Maris

        You don’t have to live the life of the common man to understand the life of the common man. You just have to have a bit of empathy and a lot of history, economics, sociology and psychology. Boris is streets ahead of clunkers like Cameron and Osborne. His major fault (for a politician) was his candidness. He has learnt by now not to blurt out unnecessary truths (like the truth about Liverpudlians wallowing in their victimhood).

        I doubt you can get the economics and foreign policy right without understanding your people. Take someone like McMillan who I think might be more to your taste – I think the experience of the trenches really gave him some true knowledge of people.