Sort It out, Old Chap ... Is George Osborne "Nerdy", "Nasty" and "Overpromoted", as His Conservative Critics Would Have It, or the Potential Saviour of His Party and a Future Leader?

By Bright, Martin; Macintyre, James | New Statesman (1996), November 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Sort It out, Old Chap ... Is George Osborne "Nerdy", "Nasty" and "Overpromoted", as His Conservative Critics Would Have It, or the Potential Saviour of His Party and a Future Leader?


Bright, Martin, Macintyre, James, New Statesman (1996)


Last December, when it looked as if Boris Johnson's mayoral campaign was in trouble, senior Tories were in despair. The media were accusing their candidate of laziness and lacking an appetite for the fight. Unable to take advantage of the obvious weakness in the Labour camp, the Tories were sleepwalking towards defeat. Enter George Osborne. Aides to the shadow chancellor and Conservative election supreme are said to have been astonished when they discovered that the Johnson team finished work at 6.30 pm, leaving the office strewn with beer cans and 1980s-style Tory paraphernalia including, it is said, a hunting horn. "There was a sense of drift," said one party official. "George was the one who gave things a jolt." Crucially, Osborne was involved in bringing in the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, credited by some with turning the election around for Johnson.

The name official, who has worked closely with Osborne, mentions a trait in the 37-year-old shadow chancellor often mentioned by his supporters: "He spots problems very far ahead of the curve, which allows you to address issues well in advance. He has a very good radar."

Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary and one of the architects of the "Cameroon" project, also identifies Osborne's political intuition as his greatest quality. In his running of Cameron's leadership election, his close study of Gordon Brown's psychology, his assiduous help in preparing for Prime Minister's Questions and his tireless modernising of the party, Osborne has done little wrong. "I've seen George operate at every level," says Gove. "He has the best judgement of anyone in the party apart from David Cameron."

So where has Osborne's political radar gone in the past three weeks? Wrong-footed by Peter Mandelson over his dealings with the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, criticised from within his own party for failing to keep pace with the government's response to the economic crisis and apparently unable to construct a distinctive Conservative economic vision, Osborne is in a tight bind. Like Mandelson, Osborne has never made it a priority to make himself popular in his party, so it is little surprise that he now finds himself isolated. His critics within the party are vicious in their attacks on him. One former frontbencher told the New Statesman: "Every day George is in place as shadow chancellor, he does drip-drip damage to the party. He is damaged goods."

Osborne has enemies on both the right and the left of the party; from those close to David Davis and John Redwood, as well as those on the pro-European left of the party who are irritated by the stranglehold that Cameron's close circle holds over the main policy areas. It is a mark of Osborne's vulnerability that he is under attack from both wings. His opponents on the back benches and in the Lords are happy to describe him as "nasty", "nerdy", "spiky and aggressive", "a child" and--above all--"overpromoted". Some critics in the City go even further: "Unworldly. Parochial. Native. Cocky. Complacent. Self-regarding," said a senior City figure who knows the shadow chancellor and asked not to be named.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Various scenarios are being discussed in Tory circles about the future of the boy wonder as he once was. Some are suggesting that Cameron should show his mettle and cut his long-standing friend and ally loose. In so doing, the argument goes, he would demonstrate his ruthlessness in doing what Tony Blair was never able to do with Gordon Brown. Osborne could then be shifted to party chairman and devote himself to what he does best: political strategy. The reshuffle of Osborne would also lead to the removal of Caroline Spelman, the present chairman, who faces her own difficulties over expenses and has failed to operate effectively for some time.

In Downing Street, the Brown camp faces a conundrum. There is nothing the Prime Minister and those around him would like more than the scalp of the man who has tormented Brown for three years. …

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