There is a simple rule in Tory politics: do not cross Lord Ashcroft. There is little love between the Conservative leadership and Ashcroft, the man who sustained the Tories through the wilderness years but was left high and dry in 2010 during the furore over his tax affairs. Admiration curdled into contempt, epitomised by Ashcroft’s weighty critique of the Tories’ disastrous 2010 election campaign.
Tax is back in the news and so, by chance, is his lordship. Ashcroft has written a short but devastating piece on the Tories’ present strategy. He writes:
‘It is depressing to hear that plans are afoot to paint Miliband as the Michael Dukakis of British politics: part of a metropolitan elite with no understanding of mainstream concerns.’
Ashcroft identifies three flaws: the Tories might easily be mistaken as fanciful metropolitans, attacking Miliband won’t weaken his support among Labour voters, and, above all, the Tories need to define themselves not Miliband. This requires a fresh approach, one that expresses Conservative thinking coherently.
The upshot of Ashcroft’s article is that if the strategy doesn’t change, then the strategist must be replaced. Attention turns to George Osborne, the prime minister’s aide-de-camp, unofficial Tory chairman and Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is a joke doing the rounds that summarises the Osborne question, ‘He’s creating an economy in his own image: lots of part-time jobs.’ The view that Osborne does too much to do anything well is gaining ground.
Peter Oborne argues in this morning’s Telegraph that Osborne must be forced to choose between his various jobs. Oborne favours promoting Philip Hammond to the Treasury, but implies that the political cost of demoting Osborne may be too great: ‘the part-time chancellor’ is one of Ed Balls’ bon mots. But, that loss may be outweighed by Osborne’s undoubted talents as a performer and tactician, which were evident at the Leveson Inquiry last week, where, frankly, he was showing off.
The Osborne question is a test of David Cameron’s personality, as well as his leadership instincts. In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Cameron expressed great loyalty to his friends. You can’t unmake friendships of 30 years, he said. His government was drifting; now it’s floundering. A chorus of sceptics is asking him to consider the place of his closest political friend; because, ultimately, it all leads back to Osborne.