Jon Craig: Osborne's transition from pantomime villain to Tory rock star
If the going gets rocky for the PM in the months ahead, the clamour for the Chancellor to move next door will grow among the MPs who wildly cheered his Budget
Less than three years ago, George Osborne was greeted by a chorus of boos as he presented medals in the Paralymic Games in the Olympic Stadium.
Now, after his first all-blue Conservative Budget, he is undisputably the front runner in the race for the Tory leadership and favourite to become Britain’s next Prime Minister.
So high is his popularity among Tory MPs right now that after a triumphant appearance at the 1922 Committee following the Budget he was autographing copies of the Red Book for Tory MPs in the corridor outside Committee Room 14.
From pantomime villain to rock star status in just a few short years.
Back in 2012, opinion polls suggested Mr Osborne was the most unpopular member of the government. That was the year of the “omnishambles” Budget, when he was forced into U-turns on the charity tax, pasty tax and caravan tax.
Now his reputation as a master strategist is restored, partly thanks to the Conservatives’ general election victory in May, for which he can claim much of the credit, and now thanks to a bold and shamelessly political Budget within weeks of the election victory.
Shameless because he plundered some of Labour’s most eye-catching policies, such as the crackdown on non-doms, and also pinched other policies, such as the national living wage, from under the nose of his main Tory leadership rival, Boris Johnson.
The Chancellor’s other leading challenger for the Tory leadership, Home Secretary Theresa May, obligingly filled the Chancellor’s glass with water during his Budget speech. An apt metaphor for their relative status in the party from now on, perhaps?
And even when he praised Boris Johnson for lobbying for cash to repair the RAF’s Group Fighter Command Centre in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, the Chancellor couldn’t resist a withering put down.
“Let its renovation stand as a monument to the heroes of the Battle of Britain,,, And the days when aeroplanes flew freely over the skies of west London,” said Mr Osborne.
Ouch! A not very subtle dig at London’s Mayor’s opposition to Heathrow expansion.
Later, in the glittering finale of his Budget speech, stealing the Mayor’s living wage proposal wasn’t just pulling a rabbit out of the hat by Mr Osborne, it was shooting Boris’s fox too.
But Boris Johnson wasn’t the Tory party’s only blond bombshell whose ideas and vision were pickpocketed by the Chancellor and unveiled as if they were his own.
Mr Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” and his devolution to the English regions with directly-elected mayors is a policy that Michael Heseltine was trumpeting three decades ago during his time in the Tory wilderness after he stormed out of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet in 1986.
The 2% defence spending pledge was designed to cheer up Conservative MPs who have been frustrated by David Cameron’s stubborn refusal to make the same pledge. When he announced this commitment, the former and current chairmen of the Defence Select Committeee, Rory Stewart and Julian Lewis, laned over towards each other and shook hands vigorously.
Why weren’t the living wage and the defence spending pledge in the Tory manifesto, like many of the Budget measures announced by Mr Osborne? So he could win the plaudits personally by announcing them in his first post-election Budget, presumably. And why didn’t he spell out the detail of his £12 billion welfare cuts during the election campaign? Well, because that would have frightened voters, obviously.
Throughout Mr Osborne’s blockbuster of a Budget, David Cameron sat alongside him, almost unnoticed as the Chancellor strutted in front of him at the dispatch box, all swagger and confidence and seemingly relishing the barracking and heckling from Labour MPs opposite.
I have a number of pet theories about the consequences of the Conservatives winning an overall majority in May and not having to govern in coalition any more.
One is that William Hague, now writing books in his Welsh hideaway, may regret stepping down from the Commons and the job he loved at the Foreign Office.
The second is that others who retired as MPs at a relatively young age, such as Francis Maude, also regret their decision, although Mr Maude strongly denied this when I put it to him as we sipped the Pol Roger at the Spectator party last week.
And the third, of course, is that David Cameron bitterly regrets his rather rash pledge to the BBC’s James Landale in his Oxfordshire kitchen during the election campaign to quit as PM in a few years’ time.
After George Osborne’s Budget triumph, if the going gets rocky for the Prime Minister in the months ahead – in his attempts to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, for example – the clamour from the Tory back benches for Mr Osborne to move next door from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing Street earlier than Mr Cameron would like will grow among those backbenchers who cheered his Budget wildly and waved their order papers in a frenzy.
Last month Mr Osborne was rather ordinary when he stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time, largely because Labour’s Hillary Benn and Labour MPs skillfully steered their questions towards more tricky international issues rather than ask about the economy. (So much so that Mr Osborne complained rather lamely towards the end of the session.)
But if this Budget was a job interview for the job of Prime Minister, then Mr Osborne’s CV was impressive and he’s easily through to the next round of auditions.
Even before the Budget, the Chancellor was already on manouevres and preparing for a leadership bid. He’s been holding drinks parties for Conservative backbenchers at 11 Downing Street and has hosted a Sunday lunchtime barbecue for MPs at Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour mansion where John Prescott notoriously played croquet on the lawn.
The Chancellor has a new Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore, and has hired the political editor of the Daily Mail, James Chapman, as his new director of communications. I’m told the Chancellor personally phoned the Mail’s prickly editor, Paul Dacre, who was insisting Chapman must work out his notice and persuaded him to let him go. The boy “Chappers”, it should also be noted, made an accomplished spinning debut in the “huddle” that traditionally takes place after the Budget.
So far so good for Mr Osborne as he plots his move to No.10. Could it all go wrong? Of course it could. Budgets that win acclaim on the day often unravel and turn into a political disaster, as Mr Osborne know only too well. And international events such as the Greek economic crisis could still inflict serious damage on other European economies, including Britain’s, as he acknowledged in his Budget speech.
It’s worth recalling that when George Osborne was booed at the Paralympics in 2012, the crowd cheered Boris Johnson.s name loudly and even gave Gordon Brown a respectful reception.
Fickle business, politics. Enjoy it while it lasts, George.
Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News. This article first appeared at www.totalpolitics.com