Sunday, 20 March 2011

No longer Boy George

It should be no surprise that in the weekend before the budget both the Financial Times and The Economist have published profiles of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The one in the FT magazine is particularly long and favourable and looks as if it could have been 'placed' by the Chancellor's political advisers.

However, the message of the two pieces is essentially the same: the Chancellor is no longer Boy George. Before the election there were concerns that he would not be up to the role. He was seen as too preoccupied with scoring political points. But he has grown into the role well. Although not a workaholic, civil servants think that he has mastered the technical aspects of his brief well. He has an appetite for reforming taxes, rather than just cutting them.

He also has a good working relationship with the prime minister, symbolised by the fact that he works most of the time out of No.11 Downing Street rather than the Treasury. The door to No.10 is kept pinned open and the Chancellor takes a leading role in regular strategy discussions. The relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor is the fulcrum of government and when it breaks down (Lawson and Thatcher) or is tense (the Blair-Brown 'dual monarchy'), the reverberations are felt throughout Whitehall.

David Cameron has a long way to go as Prime Minister and is currently enjoying a good war. However, Osborne is now seen as a potential successor in a way that he wasn't before. The Tory right see him as more attuned to their way of thinking than the Prime Minister.

One problem is Osborne's public image. He doesn't expected to be liked, but he does hope to earn the respect of the people. However, an Economist poll shows that William Hague is seen as the most likely successor, followed by Nick Clegg! Osborne only gets 9 per cent.

In part this reflects the way in which Nick Clegg is the public No.2 in the government and has acted as a lightning conductor for its policies. What is also interesting about the Economist poll is that although the electorate have taken on board Labour's message that the government is cutting too far, too fast and that the poor will suffer most, they also largely blame the existence of the deficit on Labour. That effect may, of course, fade over time and a big responsibility rests on Osborne for restoring the economy to better health.

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