GEORGE Osborne has had better weeks and months. The unravelling of his status as cock of the walk in the Conservative Party has been much more rapid than his long ascent to leader-in-waiting.
To be fair there hasn’t really been a victory for the front-runner in any Tory leadership election since Edward Heath succeeded Alec Douglas Home in 1965. Margaret Thatcher blindsided Heath’s “back me or sack me” ultimatum in 1975 and the rest of that story we know.
Following her own tearful defenestration 15 years later, I don’t think anyone anticipated that John Major would come through the field against Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. He never even ran in the initial contest. Of course he did win his own “put up or shut up” contest against John Redwood in 1995, but that was more about party management than a real contest.
When Major properly resigned in 1997 following Tony Blair’s landslide, it was Ken Clarke who led the field only to see the extraordinary talent of William Hague beat him to the line. Hague’s brilliance is not in doubt, but it was not enough to make a success of leadership.
He limped through a difficult few years before another contest in 2001 when a wide field of Michael Portillo (frontrunner), Clarke (again), Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Ancram and David Davis slugged it out. After three rounds of MP ballots it was Duncan Smith and Clarke who went to the full Tory membership and the “Quiet Man” knocked the affable Clarke for six.
But at no point had even a third of his MPs backed him and he staggered through a hapless couple of years before once again the party had to choose. Or not, in this case, as Michael Howard was appointed unopposed and un-ratified by the membership. He lasted a full 23 months before yet another contest saw Clarke (again) face off to Liam Fox, Davis (front-runner) and a callow youth in the form of David Cameron.
The story is worth repeating because it reminds us that parties are capable of indulging themselves in selecting unlikely-to-be-elected leaders. In doing so they commit self-harm no matter how warm the glow. It also reminds us that many aspire to leadership but few can carry it off in opposition or government.
I wouldn’t write Osborne off. His mettle is being tested in the teeth of the gale in a way none of the alternatives will be by then. That is not to say his party members won’t be charmed by a charismatic and untainted alternative. But they would do well to learn the lesson of Labour’s contest, the result of which has planted their party on the extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn’s approval rating is the worst of any opposition leader since polling began in 1955, trailing both Michael Foot and Duncan Smith by 8 points. That takes some doing.
So I wouldn’t underestimate Osborne. He has a wit and guile that few candidates for the top job before could match. He is also effectively chief executive of the government already. But his handling of tax-credit cuts looks to be both a political and economic miscalculation. It jars with reasonable people everywhere and looks to be the wrong target at the wrong time.
Broadly speaking the British public would like to see the welfare bill reduced. They just don’t like cutting any specific benefit or hurting any particular group. We’d rather we grew incomes and jobs first. There, in a nutshell, is the challenge of leadership.
Leadership is about choices in any walk of life but especially in government and politics. The best leaders build their bank of public goodwill and support and think about how they want to use that to take the big, inter-generational decisions that could improve the country for the long term. History favours those whose legacy resonates.
All decisions that change anything can prove unpopular with the vested interests affected.
But any political leader who builds their bank of goodwill and then just sits on it will fail – all ultimately do – with the double whammy of not actually having done anything with their moment. That would be a crying shame. History recalls popular managers who become unpopular ones. What’s the point?
For the last quarter century or so the Tories have had a leadership election on an average of every three years. Labour’s instability is now similarly crystal clear.
Yet the era we live in requires very large challenges to be addressed: energy security and production; climate change; global economic imbalances; global insecurity and our defence in the face of it; exploding inequality and mass migration; public debt and deficits; the future shape and role of public services and the very legitimacy of democratic and global institutions being questioned and undermined every day.
These are material challenges that require adult debate, deep thought and considered choice.
The “great game” of politics in the UK has some distance to travel if it is to come close to stepping up to the plate. «