Only a few short months ago, it was accepted wisdom within Westminster that George Osborne was going to become the next prime minister. “The one chart that shows how George Osborne is almost certainly going to be our next Prime Minister,” the Independent declared back before 2015 conference season, and that is but one of the numerous examples of this line of commentary from the period. Now, in the shadow of yesterday’s budget, everyone appears to be writing him off. In particular, members of the Conservative Party – and they are the ones who ultimately count in all this.
I never bought into the “inevitability of George” narrative; it never had anything to do with the chancellor himself, just that history tells us that an outsider (or at least, someone who wasn’t expected to win when the race began) almost always gets the top Tory job and I didn’t expect the next race to be any different. Anyhow, why exactly are Tories lining up to deride Osborne’s leadership possibilities all of a sudden?
It is partly the EU referendum and the path George has taken in the debate. But this seems odd to me – surely no one ever doubted which side of that argument Osborne would fall on? It wasn’t like his views on Europe were ever a closely guarded secret. I suppose now that the campaign is actually underway, it allows for emotions to creep to the surface that had been submerged previously, thus making Osborne’s stance on the EU suddenly unforgivable.
Part of it however, is the substance of the budget itself. Tories hate it because of things like the sugar tax and the fact that the cuts aren’t deep or clearly ideologically driven enough. It has been pointed out that this was a budget that Gordon Brown could have delivered, and in a sense that’s not far from wrong. Of course, George isn’t about to get any credit from the Left for the budget either: if Osborne had renationalised the trains, given the NHS an extra £30 billion a year, and called for a £21 an hour minimum wage we’d still be hearing about how draconian this Tory shrinking of the state was from the usual suspects.
What is comes down to is that George sees an opportunity for the Tories to park their tanks on the centre ground of British politics for the next quarter century, staying in power for that whole time, while a large portion of people in his party, MPs and members alike, see the weakness of Labour as a chance to tack way to the right with no cause for electoral worry. These two positions are irreconcilable and this budget has seen the argument reach its apotheosis.
So who will be the next Tory leader/prime minister if not George? My money is still on Gove, and definitely Gove over Boris. But like I said about outsiders above, perhaps it’s going to be someone no one would predict at the moment.