April 24, 2013 7:06 pm

Myths surrounding George Osborne, Britain’s austerity chancellor

Half-truths and outdated certainties abound about the UK’s second most powerful person

George Osborne needs a new nickname. The “submarine”, so-called in Westminster for his blend of clout and inconspicuousness, has been the UK’s most visible politician of late. The chancellor was the face and voice of the government’s clampdown on welfare. He shed uncharacteristic tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Then came open discord with the International Monetary Fund over the wisdom of ongoing austerity. On Tuesday he showed up in Scotland, where he must seem like a Hollywood scriptwriter’s idea of a Sassenach villain, to challenge nationalist assumptions about independence. He has even started tweeting.

But ubiquity has not made the chancellor any less inscrutable. He gives little away compared with other politicians of his generation, including David Cameron, the prime minister, and Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader. Inevitably, half-truths and outdated certainties about him abound, among admirers as well as enemies. No journalist can gaze inside a politician’s soul but I can think of at least a few myths about the second most powerful person in the land:

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Janan Ganesh

He is ultra-political

This is less true than it was. Scorned for his unconvincing response to the first tremors of the crash, he knew he had to offer more than tactics. So he embraced austerity, knowing it could cost his party the 2010 general election, and he now writes or sponsors most of the government’s biggest policies, from education reform to the cut in the top rate of income tax. Given the predictable toxicity of the latter idea and the failure to win that election, Tories might wish he were more political, not less. He still struggles to pass up a chance to score points, and his pugilism often backfires. But he is certainly more ideological than the prime minister.

Class is the key to understanding him

No, it is geography. Privileged people can always be found at the commanding heights of politics but born-and-bred Londoners are rarer. Mr Osborne’s worldview is deeply metropolitan: socially liberal, less vexed by immigration than many Tories and generally at ease with globalisation. Were he a newspaper, he would be The Economist, where he once went for a job. But this can be a burden in a party that reads The Daily Telegraph. The traditional right curse his zeal for planning reform, his failure to share their reverence for stay-at-home mothers and his reluctance to recognise marriage in the tax system.

His unpopularity must haunt him

Even some of his many, many detractors felt sorry for Mr Osborne when he was booed by thousands of spectators while presenting medals at last year’s Paralympic Games in London. Really, there’s no need. It is hard to think of a politician more indifferent to hostility – which is just as well, for surveys find him to be the least popular in the UK. If a man is already seen as rich and cocky, and then let it be known that he supports Chelsea football club, he cannot be fussy about his own public image.

He is obsessed with America

True, he has a Westminster nerd’s thirst for political Americana, and is one of the few Tories still plugged in to the Republican party. But he is much more immersed in the high politics of Europe. He toiled to win friends among continental finance ministers, including Sweden’s Anders Borg and France’s Christine Lagarde, now head of the IMF. Never a public performer, he is in his element in Brussels’ back rooms. One Foreign Office mandarin says he is more engaged with the EU than William Hague, the foreign secretary. Some of this is purest necessity – it is the Treasury’s burden to see off regulatory raids on the City of London – but he has taken to the work with surprising vigour.

He yearns to be prime minister

Even when ascent to Number 10 was much more plausible than economic stagnation has made it, Mr Osborne’s hunger for the job was overestimated by many. Anyone with serious interest in becoming prime minister would try to soften their image. Mr Osborne never does. Yes, he schmoozes and networks, but these may be defensive manoeuvres – many would like to see him fall – not a campaign for the premiership. One colleague says the chancellor knows that his current role, with its opportunity to wield enormous power without going before the public very often, suits him best. This vessel is still happiest underwater.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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