George Osborne has political enemies. But are they also ideological opponents?
What hope is there that the Conservative Party might realistically follow a different intellectual and ideological path after the Age of Cameron and Osborne?
While there have been precious few public signs of senior cabinet or backbench, leadership-calibre Conservative MPs willing to make a public stand for a smaller state and greater individual liberty, perhaps we should be encouraged by the fact that many Tory MPs apparently hold such a low opinion of George Osborne, the navigator largely responsible for the party’s current centrist course.
James Kirkup has been surveying attitudes to the Chancellor within the parliamentary party:
How much trouble is Mr Osborne in? Put it this way: Tory MPs who a few months ago were so wary of his power over their future that they flinched at the mention of his name are now speculating about whether he will keep his job.
By way of evidence, here are some things Conservatives have said to me about the Chancellor in recent days. Two of the quotes below come from serving members of the government. One is from someone who holds a senior office in the Tory hierarchy. One is a backbench MP who could easily have a prominent place in Cabinet in a year or two.
1. “No chance. None. Zero. Never going to happen. Dead. Deader than dead.”
2. “He has been found out. He doesn’t believe in anything and no one likes him. It was useful for people to support him when he was on the way up, but no one will stick with him on the way down.”
3. “The thing about George is that a lot of people think he’s a bit arrogant and rude, but that’s because they don’t really know him.
“Well I’ve worked with him pretty closely for several years now and so I know that the truth is that in person he’s actually much worse than that.”
Kirkup goes on to chart a path back out of the wilderness for Osborne, which is of far less interest to this blog, which ardently hopes that the Chancellor and his “New Labour Continued” strategy perish in the desert.
But there is no point looking forward to the departure of Cameron and Osborne unless there is a reasonable prospect of them being replaced by other, better alternatives – future leaders whose conservatism does not retreat at the first sight of negative headlines, and who know when the pain of public opposition is worth the gains (i.e. not in pursuit of a paltry £4bn of savings from Personal Independence Payments for disabled welfare claimants).
Back in November of last year, this blog pointed out that winning power only to implement Tony Blair’s unrealised fourth term of office was a waste of a Conservative administration, and that those who campaigned and voted Tory deserved better:
The fact that David Cameron and George Osborne are watching the slow implosion of the Labour Party and conjuring up plans to woo Ed Miliband voters – rather than capitalise on this once-in-a-century opportunity to execute a real conservative agenda unopposed – reveals their worrying lack of confidence in core conservative principles and values. If the Prime Minister and Chancellor really believed in reducing the tax burden, reforming welfare, building up our armed forces, shrinking the state, promoting localism and devolving decision-making to the lowest level possible (with the individual as the default option), they could do so. They could be building a new, conservative Britain right here, right now. Virtually unopposed.
But Cameron and Osborne are doing no such thing. They simper and equivocate, and talk about fixing the roof and paying down the debt while doing no such thing, and still they attract endless negative headlines for inflicting an austerity which exists primarily in the minds of permanently outraged Guardian readers.
If Britain is not a transformed country in 2020 – with a smaller state, more dynamic private sector and greater presence on the world stage – there will be absolutely nobody to blame other than the party holding the keys to government. The party with the word “conservative” in their name. The Tories will have been in power for ten years and have nearly nothing to show for it, save some weak protestations about having fixed Labour’s prior mismanagement of the economy.
That’s not the kind of party I want to be associated with. That’s not the party I campaigned to elect in 2010, back when it seemed possible that a new Conservative administration might aspire to being something more than a moderate improvement on Gordon Brown.
In other words, in order to make an exciting potential future leadership candidate, the Conservative MPs rolling their eyes as the Chancellor of the Exchequer self destructs (or uses up another of his nine political lives) must not simply dislike George Osborne – and there is increasing evidence that his support is a mile wide but an inch deep – but actually have an entirely different vision for the party.
That rules out all of the most obvious successors (Theresa May, Nicky Morgan, Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, Jeremy Hunt) as well as those one-time Bright Young Things who have recently proven their unreliability by failing to come out in support of Brexit (Sajid Javid, Stephen Crabb, Matt Hancock, Rob Halfon).
Unfortunately, that mostly leaves a pool of potential candidates who are probably too new to Parliament to mount a credible leadership bid by 2020, or citizen politician types who have already publicly disavowed any future leadership ambitions. This blog took a warm liking to Chris Philp (if only he can be cured of his europhilia), David Nuttall (with some specific policy reservations) and James Cleverly when these MPs recently addressed a Conservatives for Liberty lobby event, and also Lucy Allan – though the latter’s social media exploits and alleged behaviour towards her staff raise some worrying temperamental questions.
Kwasi Kwarteng is also a sound conservative, advocating a return to a contributory welfare state as well as being an excellent author. Dominic Raab is very bright, and strong on individual liberty and meritocracy.
None are what you might consider to be household names at present. In some cases, that may have the potential to change by 2020, depending on what happens and whether any of these candidates are promoted into the cabinet as the Conservative Party approaches the end of David Cameron’s term.
But the green shoots of a British Conservative revival do exist. They are small and fragile at present, and no matter who is leading Labour in 2020, Cameron’s successor will have to contend with Tory Fatigue after ten years back in government, making the urge to tack to the centre even harder to resist than it is already.
Which is all the more reason why this blog believes it is now imperative to identify, support and champion those future leadership prospects who fit the profile of an heir to Thatcher rather than another disappointing, Cameron-style Ted Heath tribute act.
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