The MT Interview: George Osborne
In their hubris, the Brown gang ridiculed the Shadow Chancellor's youth in 2005. But the boy done good playing a blinder on inheritance tax and the jibes have faded away. As Labour flounders, his challenge is to rise above the scrummage for the long view of electoral victory.
It's an odd business, politics. Far odder than business. And in opposition things are even stranger. Living in a parallel world, shadowing, pretending. This is what struck me as I wandered over Westminster Bridge for my two o'clock appointment with George Osborne MP, the man who would be Chancellor.
And here he is in his office overlooking the Thames next to Portcullis House, bending all his energies to achieve what we must assume is his heart-felt wish to be the next occupant of Number 11. It just seems an odd thing to wish to be doing at the moment. For 10 years the job was a good sinecure - keeping a firm hand on the tiller of a healthy, growing economy - but since the deadly summer of 2007, being Chancellor has looked quite the grimmest role in British politics. Never mind the notorious Home Office, boneyard of so many political careers, or the permanent nightmare at Health ... either looks like a bowl of cherries beside C of E.
During the past six months the incumbent, Alistair Darling (who couldn't get any greyer if he tried) has been hosed down by a non-stop torrent of calamity, humiliation, cock-up and ridicule. (Mr Bean next door at Number 10 has looked no less wretched. More of him later.) And, if we're being honest, all this has befallen Darling without much of it being directly attributable to him personally. He didn't fecklessly mislay the HMRC discs. Neither was he directly behind the steering wheel during the multiple pile-up that is Northern Rock. Not much he could have done about the convulsions on the global markets and the general downturn. Maybe the capital gains tax muddle and U-turn was a foul-up of his own making but, nevertheless, Darling's recent track record looks like Alan Bennet's definition of history: 'It's just one f**king thing after another.'
So, George, do you really want to be there? Being Chancellor looks like trying to keep the notes in the till when there's a hurricane blowing through the shop. A brief - very brief - smile. 'Look, of course I want to be Chancellor of the Exchequer,' he replies, playing a straight bat. 'Of course there are tricky economic conditions globally at the moment, with turbulence and uncertainty ... But they're the sorts of things that make politics what it is - difficult problems and long-term challenges. I'm well aware that, as Chancellor, you don't get an easy ride.'
There's little else Osborne could answer but along these lines. He is a politician, after all. But for the first time in ages it actually looks easier to be in opposition than in power: all one has to do is sit and watch as the New Labour machine hits the black ice. What's certain is that the wheels have locked up and then come off Brown's bus.
Last summer, the Tories were looking as far away from power as ever, still stumbling about in No Man's Land. As the PM enjoyed his brief honeymoon in the top job he'd craved for so long, there were murky rumours that the cocky Osborne would be axed in favour of William Hague. So, the speed of the subsequent Conservative reversal of fortune is quite something.
'Things have fallen apart pretty quickly for them,' agrees Osborne, sitting slightly awkwardly on his office sofa. The furnishings and bric-a-brac give little away: two cycling helmets and a laddered Paul Smith tie on the coatstand, his Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year award, a set of Top Trumps plus a bottle (unopened) of Rioja. 'But there's a long way to go until the next election. We're not complacent.
'Labour's problems are due to their fundamental political, ideological foundations. Gordon Brown is trying to claim he's the new thing on the block, a big change from Blair. …