I’ll nail my colours to the mast here, straight off: I don’t see how Osborne becomes prime minister from here. A lot of commentators are saying the same thing, but are hedging their bets, saying George has wounded himself, perhaps fatally, but there is probably some way back from this budget. No hedging about it from these quarters: I just don’t see a way back for the chancellor.
There are several things we’ve learned about Cameron during the six years he’s been in Number 10. One of the big lessons is that he’s absolutely terrified of the right of his party and will do almost anything short of something that will actually destroy the country to appease them. The EU referendum is a brilliant case in point: called simply to keep his UKIP branch on side, he has stopped short of campaigning for us to leave.
The likely scenario goes like this then: we vote to stay in, narrowly, on June 23rd. Cameron is told he can have a grace period to remain as prime minister so long as he chucks Osborne overboard – otherwise the backbenchers will call for a formal leadership challenge. Cameron bows to this pressure and Osborne either accepts the FCO job or returns to the backbench, presumably to consider his life outside of politics. The point of this is to nullify Osborne’s leadership chances and to ensure that the Cameroonian project dies with the current prime minister’s abdication.
The leadership contest is between Boris and Gove. Unless someone comes from virtually nowhere to capture Tory hearts and minds over the next year or so (possible but very unlikely), it will definitely be those two in the final vote to the membership. The Tories then veer to the right in many respects under either leader, while becoming slightly less economically right-wing: an IDS-style, Victorian flavoured, “we must help the poor in some way, shan’t we?” type of thing that sands down a few aspects of the austerity project while leaving it pretty much intact.
Some Labour people may find this whole scenario appealing. But I would warn them not to – it simply means that a more right-wing Tory government will be in power for the foreseeable future. It won’t allow Jeremy and he crew get their hands on the reigns of power – trust me, that is never going to happen. Either Boris or Gove would easily beat Labour in a general election, as much as you want to deny that is reality.
I have said before that the EU referendum won’t split the Tory party, and I stand by that assertion. Instead, it will simply crush one whole part of it. What those Tories who aren’t enamoured towards that type of future do at this stage will be interesting. I reckon most of them will simply go with the flow; it’s the way of politics. Either potential leader will throw them enough bones to stop them from walking away, particularly when a crushing victory over Labour lies in plain sight.