Young untried political leader comes to the fore in his party in the wake of repeated election humiliations. Following dramatic election success that changes the political landscape, at young leader’s right hand sits the party’s economic guru, given an unprecedented amount of power over domestic policy, leaving leader to concentrate on the big world picture.
It arguably worked really well for a number of years after 1997, whether the arrangement arose from a deal struck between the politicians concerned or not. Right hand man showed huge competence in the domestic, particularly economic, sphere, and leader went off to save the world, or at least provide a passable solution to the biggest problem in UK domestic policy of the past 30 years. And then it all started to unravel, as foreign policy became indistinguishable from US policy, and you know the rest.
What is interesting, given the fact that the Blair / Brown relationship, and in particular the amount of power over domestic policy ceded by the Prime Minister to his Chancellor, was pretty much unprecedented in UK politics, is the extent to which the current government has followed a similar pattern, both in conception and practice.
George Osborne is very close to David Cameron. There are suggestions that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were close only so that they were handy to stab each other in the back should the need arise (“keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather Part II, and as Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu may have said a very long time before). I have not heard similar suggestions about David and George.
What is clear is that George Osborne’s role in the day to day running of the government is every bit as key as Gordon Brown’s was to Tony Blair’s Labour government. He is the Conservative Party’s key political strategist and chief tactician, who masterminded the 2010 election campaign and oversees all major policy decisions of the coalition government, as well as having a key say on the government’s public statements and appointments within the Conservative party.
Apparently Downing Street and Treasury sources are at pains to “point out that during a decade of the last government there was a dysfunctional stand off between Numbers 10 and 11 and that it is essential the chancellor and prime minister meet daily and get on.” Hmm – interesting take on political history that.
There is no doubt that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown loathed each other. But it appears to be taking significant liberties with history to suggest that their stand off was ‘dysfunctional’. Indeed, I would argue quite the contrary; for the vast majority of their joint period in office the relationship may have been frosty at best, but it was extremely functional, particularly in the realm of domestic politics and the economy in particular. Even if that resulted from Gordon doing exactly what he wanted in that sphere.
So if we are judging by results, might we conclude that government functions better when PM and Chancellor hate each other’s guts than when they get on well? Of course that is pretty unfair to the current incumbents in some ways, given that they head a coalition government, whereas Tony and Gordon pretty much had political free reign, and that they are operating, not in a benign economic climate, but in the face of the worst financial crisis in living memory. But just how unfair is this analysis on closer inspection?
George Osborne was responsible for the Conservative Party’s 2010 General Election campaign. The one where Labour went to the country after 13 years in power having overseen the worst banking crisis in history, led us into economic meltdown and overseen the MPs expenses scandal and ……………….. the Tories didn’t win. There is a substantial body of political opinion that reckons that this was the equivalent of missing an open goal, so perhaps Mr Osborne cannot be held so blameless for his current travails.
Given that the economic crisis shows no sign of abating, that he perpetrated a series of humiliating U-turns in the wake of the 2012 Budget and that Ed Balls delights in calling him “a part-time Chancellor”, might George Osborne consider cutting back his time-consuming role as tactician and strategist of the Conservative party? Apparently not, if the above quote is anything to go by. Yet the electorate in 2014 or 2015, not to mention history, will judge this government and its Chancellor not on how effectively he managed his party, but on how successfully he managed the economy. So if I were Mr Osborne I know what I would want to be concentrating on right now.