The House of Commons is one of few workplaces where year of entry is an identifying tag, as at school. MPs retain an unhealthy awareness of who is in the cohort above and below them. They talk about the calibre and character of each successive “intake”. Former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown entered parliament together in the class of 1983 and ended up sharing an office from which to ponder together their party’s remoteness from power. Similarly, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s alliance is a product of the 2001 election: The Tories’ second successive defeat and a moment when their party’s drift to a morose cultural periphery looked as if it might be permanent.
The Cameron-Osborne project to lead the Conservatives back to government was fashioned in close study of the Blair-Brown precedent, with particular emphasis on the need to avoid sabotaging their own victories with paranoid rivalry. Their success on that front should not be taken for granted. Prime ministers and chancellors have boundless opportunities to fall out — and, given time, usually do.
After now, Osborne will have delivered eight budgets, six autumn statements and two comprehensive spending reviews, through economic turbulence, election campaigns, European crises and domestic scandal, all without a memorable Downing Streetbust-up.
An essential component in that harmonious record has been Osborne’s capacity — unusual in a politician so intellectually self-assured and ambitious — to know his limits, either before he reaches them or shortly enough after he has crossed the line to get back behind it quickly. In 2005, when Michael Howard — then Conservative leader — tapped his shadow chancellor up as a possible successor, Osborne steered his boss towards Cameron instead, recognising which of the two was the better fit as potential prime minister.
In 2009, when Brown’s reputation was momentarily rehabilitated by his steady handling of the financial crisis, Cameron’s team was vulnerable to the charge of being underqualified for heavyweight economic tasks. Osborne thought of signing up Ken Clarke as shadow business secretary — a veteran to lend some greybeard heft to the front bench; he traded on his own lack of credibility as a shadow chancellor to get a step closer to the Treasury. Once installed, Osborne mastered the art of the expedient U-turn. His fiscal targets are notoriously elastic. He bends under pressure, especially when exerted by his own side. Then, with formidable chutzpah, he describes his improvised budgetary meanderings as a path of rigid discipline. This trick has diminishing returns.
Each successive fiscal showcase has become a ritualised game of expectation management. It starts with gloomy forecasts and proceeds through a day of theatrical revelation and rave overnight reviews, which end up looking partisan and credulous after more forensic economists have picked through the numbers.
Still, the economy has grown and unemployment is at record lows. It is churlish to deny the chancellor any credit for that. But a sustained period of delicate economic recovery — a modest upgrade on stagnation heroically dressed in clever politics — is not really the basis of a bid to be prime minister.
Osborne is surely an astute enough politician to know that a long stint at the Treasury, even one that can fairly be described as successful, carries no automatic qualification for 10, Downing Street. He witnessed at close quarters the failure of Brown’s transition from the second rank to the top job in British politics. He will have observed two features to make him nervous. One is that Brown’s support network in the parliamentary Labour party was built more on career patronage than belief. Like Brown, Osborne has a handful of extremely loyal lieutenants and has procured the allegiance of many more MPs with promises of cabinet preferment and implied threats of exile for failure to cooperate. There is no universal best-before period, but 10 years at the top is usually long enough for mould to appear. Many have also been impressed by his intellect and attention to detail, including postcode precision when it comes to constituency-level problems. But loyalty traded for favours lasts only as long as the procurer has credible purchasing power. When things start to go wrong, when the patron’s political capital is shrinking, the network dissolves. Brown at least reached that point having made it to No 10. The danger for Osborne is that his ambition (rather like his economic recovery) is over-reliant on confidence in the services sector. If his rise stops looking inevitable, his promises lose their value and his favour bank goes bust.
That leads to the second, more critical lesson from Brown’s failure: He could never represent change. His years as Blair’s chancellor were the best of his political life, and no amount of rebranding or relaunching could conjure up a second wind. I have heard Osborne’s supporters hint that there is a daringly liberal, “modernising” Tory character coiled and waiting to leap into action as prime minister. Brown’s cadre of true believers imagined that he fizzed with some radical social democratic impulse that had been bottled up under Blair. But when the time came for the great uncorking, the contents were flat.
Politicians start off fresh, they ripen and they go stale. There is no universal best-before period, but 10 years at the top is usually long enough for the edges to curl and mould to appear. Among many complex variables — global economic volatility, the European Union referendum, a desperately machinating Boris Johnson — the greatest obstacle to Osborne becoming prime minister is banal familiarity.
The clock started counting down for him and Cameron simultaneously. Their careers are conjoined, just as Blair’s and Brown’s were. I suspect that, deep down, Osborne knows it too. The relationship between the two most successful Tory politicians of their generation may be many times healthier in personal terms than the one that came to define New Labour, but Cameron’s reign has burned through Osborne’s chances of being a successful prime minister no less thoroughly than Blair’s did for Brown. The prime minister and the chancellor rose together as stars of the class of 2001. One cannot long outshine the other.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Rafael Behr is a political columnist for the Guardian. He has been political editor of the New Statesman, chief leader writer on the Observer and a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in Russia and eastern Europe. He was named Political Commentator of the Year in the 2014 Editorial Intelligence comment awards.