The Coalition is trying to make today about childcare after announcing plenty of housing initiatives over the weekend. Announcing different policies in a drip-drip in the run-up to the Budget means they get their own limelight – and that’s fine if you’ve got enough left in the larder once the statement itself arrives. George Osborne has learned from the 2012 Budget the art of spinning things out while leaving enough to hand out on the day – particularly giveaways that Sun readers like.
But today is also about the frankly weird shenanigans at the top of the Conservative party which continued this morning with Boris Johnson’s father pressing his case for the party rules to be changed so that the Mayor could be party leader. Last night I revealed that Michael Gove had been ‘torn a new one’ by the Prime Minister for his own intervention about there being too many Etonians at the top, which was interpreted as being the Education Secretary doing George Osborne’s dirty work to further the Chancellor’s leadership ambitions. And Baroness Warsi decided to highlight the Prime Minister’s weak spot by popping up on ITV’s The Agenda with an ‘Eton Mess’ front page.
There is, of course, jostling in the Lib Dems too, and there’s currently no vacancy there either. Danny Alexander is working hard to raise his profile, which is being read both as a bid for a future leadership contest and also a bid to take over from Vince Cable as the party’s main economy man. This has rattled some of those who also hope to lead the Lib Dems one day although they’ve managed to resist descending into the same strange race that the Conservatives are expending more energy than is necessary over.
The Coalition doesn’t have much to do at the moment. The Queen’s Speech won’t be groaning with legislative excitements and everyone’s keen not to rock the boat (although not everyone is happy with this: one Cabinet minister told me last week that it all seemed ‘too tactical’ and that there were bills waiting across Whitehall which the Coalition could still agree on but which the party chiefs worry would rock the boat). But the government is still announcing policies and goodies, including today’s help with the costs of childcare. But instead of driving that message home, even senior Tories seem interested in something else. They’re not delusional backbenchers who’ve spent too long buzzing about in the greenhouse atrium of Portcullis House: they’re men and women who are governing the country.
The other thing that all this excitement in the party about who succeeds who ignores is that the prize rarely goes to the person who appears to have installed phone lines elsewhere. Some who have attended George Osborne’s various support groups – including the heckling Treasury Support Group – which are now being seen as being part of his longer-term plan to bring MPs on board for a future leadership contest, feel he’s been a bit too unsubtle about it all. The same could be said of Boris. The top of the Tory party seems to have turned into Malvolio, pacing up and down and muttering that ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’. But those who are getting the most excited now won’t give the impression when the contest comes that they are having greatness thrust upon ’em: they’ll look as though they’ve been plotting for this for years. And perhaps that isn’t the best impression to give to voters: they do want to at least suspect that a party leader wants to govern the country out of something more than their own burning ambition.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.