ONLY the hardest-hearted will not feel some sympathy for the pressures brought to bear on any Chancellor of the Exchequer. The combined weight of hope, expectation and criticism about the welfare of us all is visited upon them in good times and in bad.
They need broad shoulders, thick skin, canny political judgment, a mastery of economics and an instinctive touch for what will drive confidence and behavioural change. Straightforward, yes?
The tools in their box are also much more limited than the received wisdom seems to suggest. And the power of those tools to carve the economy’s course diminishes by the day, month and year in the face of the tide of the globalisation of markets. They are but mortals, not divine. But it is a privileged job and one of the most interesting, and unlike the Prime Minister’s carries the advantage of allowing focus on the task in hand: the economy and public finances. Or at least it should.
So whatever our political prejudices, we should say a quiet prayer for the endeavours of George Osborne as he puts the finishing touches on his next momentous Budget. These are epic times and only history will be truly sighted on the skill and judgment of the calls being made on our behalf and on the people charged to make them. It is easy to be an armchair critic, almost too easy.
All of that being said, I think the time is fast approaching when the famed closeness of the professional and personal relationship between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor must be tested to breaking-point. Because the buck stops not at No 11 Downing Street but at No 10 whose home, we must not forget, boasts the brass plate of “First Lord of the Treasury”.
Leaders must lead, and possibly the toughest call David Cameron must now make is to replace his friend while he still has time. He, and we, needs the Conservatives’ own version of Alistair Darling and fast. The stakes could barely be higher.
Even in good times any country expects their finance ministers to put policy and public service first. With their hands on the wheel of growth, jobs and the economy, we expect a laser focus on the road ahead and an almost monarchical neutrality on the political fray. Of course the choices they make must be rooted in their politics, but especially in times of crisis the last thing we want is a sense our Chancellor is putting party ahead of country or politics ahead of policy.
This observation is what secured my possibly unhealthy affection and respect for Alistair Darling during his period in charge of the Treasury. He, of course, is a deeply loyal Labour party politician and in my view is wrong in his position on Scotland’s future. But, as Chancellor, the impression he gave me, the City and the wider economic community was complete integrity of focus during the gravest of economic times.
So much so, in fact, that when his ferociously partisan neighbour in Downing Street plotted to replace him with an equally partisan Ed Balls, the financial and economic community balked in concern. The Financial Times even devoted an editorial column under the header “Carry on Darling”, calling on Brown to keep Darling in place and thwart the ambition of their former FT colleague Balls.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of the talents of George Osborne. He is a very clever, driven and talented individual. But having lost the ratings agencies, he is weak with the City and business. The sense of doubt about his strategy is thick in the air. His own party will follow soon, if it hasn’t already. And that could spell doom not just for him but for his Prime Minister.
It may be terribly unfair, but the impression appears to be sticking that Osborne’s capable mind is focused as much on party polling and tactics as on an economy in crisis. That cannot stand, and the PM requires to reset and fix that impression urgently which makes personnel change inevitable.
The challenge now for a reset on economic strategy and a full national campaign on growth is urgent. Not that it is likely to be heard in Downing Street, but this observers’ advice would be that the signs on the Treasury pin boards that read “debt and deficits” should be replaced by a new sign that reads “JOBS & GROWTH”.
Whitehall is reported to have gathered a special team of Permanent Secretaries to thwart the ambitions of rebellious Scots. Wasteful and probably ineffective, we can and will decide for ourselves.
Rather, every sinew of leadership should be stretched every day on the goal of restoring growth and jobs. Every leadership brain and muscle must be devoted to talking the economy up and creating the conditions where it can start to mend. Every Cabinet meeting should start and end with an entreaty from the PM for every minister and official to pursue recovery positively and relentlessly.
The politics can wait for an election. Now is the time to put austerity talk in the dustbin and start talking up and about the creation of wealth and jobs.