George Osborne is contemptuous of Gordon Brown. Some say he is obsessed by him. And this week the 38-year-old Conservative announced plans to tear down one of the key monuments to the prime minister’s career: the regulatory system that failed to stop the City heading for calamity.
Mr Osborne hopes within a year to be chancellor of the exchequer and few things would give him greater pleasure than rebuilding the “dysfunctional” regulatory regime created by Mr Brown in 1997. A seething prime minister told reporters that Mr Osborne’s plans were “wrong” and “completely unacceptable”.
Some in the City agree. Mr Osborne’s plan to scrap the Financial Services Authority and to hand banking supervision to the Bank of England has been welcomed by some, but others called it a half-formed exercise in desk shuffling. Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, called it a “radical blueprint” and warned that “lots of big questions remain unanswered in these proposals.”
Mr Brown despises the upstart Tory toff, seeing him as an economic lightweight. Mr Osborne in turn mocks him as evasive, brutal and unpleasant.
Yet comparisons between the two men are unavoidable. Mr Osborne and David Cameron, the Tory leader, are “the New Conservatives” in the way that Tony Blair and Mr Brown were “New Labour” in the 1990s – youthful, modernising, centrist and hungry for power. Mr Osborne has studied the duo’s relationship carefully, wanting to replicate its initial constructive energy. “Osborne says he hates Gordon Brown, but he’s obsessed with the Blair-Brown relationship,” says a Tory MP.
Mr Osborne finds himself playing Mr Brown’s role almost precisely. In 2005, when the Tory leadership fell vacant, Mr Osborne was already shadow chancellor, a position he gained at age 33. But he stood aside to run the campaign of his friend David Cameron. Although he says “I didn’t want to run for the party leadership”, he knew the charismatic Mr Cameron had the best chance to win.
Unlike Mr Brown, who brooded over his failure to stand against Mr Blair for the Labour leadership, Mr Osborne insists he bears “no grudge” and that there is “no deal” for his friend to stand aside at some point. Yet few doubt his ultimate aim is to become prime minister.
Mr Osborne, an Atlanticist and foreign affairs hawk who describes himself as “an economic and social liberal”, holds a position in the Cameron court that replicates Mr Brown’s under Mr Blair. He dominates domestic policy and is in charge of election campaigns. “I’m going to work really hard at keeping my friendship and working relationship with David Cameron strong,” he told the FT this month.
Some senior Tories, however, fear that relationship is dangerously exclusive. “He’s trying to concentrate as much power as Brown had,” says one colleague. “It’s too much the Cameron/Osborne show and nobody else gets a look-in. People are getting pissed off – they’re getting above themselves.”
Gideon Oliver Osborne was born in 1971, the son of a baronet and scion of a family fortune derived from wallpaper and fabric. He changed his name as a teenager because “life was easier as a George”.
After attending St Paul’s School he studied history at Oxford. There he joined the Bullingdon Club, an elitist society renowned for boorish behaviour. “It’s not as if I grew up in a stately home with a deer park,” he protests. But pictures of Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron (another Bullingdon member) in full morning dress are gleefully seized upon by Labour to question whether the two really are in touch with modern Britain.
Friends and colleagues say Mr Osborne is funny, self-deprecating, calm and optimistic. “He’s a delight to work with, he seldom loses his temper,” says one.
In 2001 he was elected MP for the affluent Cheshire seat of Tatton and four years later he was pitched into Commons battle with Mr Brown, then chancellor. Mr Osborne’s critics say his obvious self-confidence easily crosses the line to arrogance, but he insists: “When you’re in a position like that at the age of 33 you have to believe in yourself. You sink or swim.”
His effortless rise was almost derailed in 2008 when he seemed flat-footed amid the escalating financial crisis, opposing the government’s response – as with the nationalisation of Northern Rock– before conceding it was right. Lord Mandelson, business secretary, says the City has noticed this lack of consistency. “What people are looking for in a would-be chancellor is serious and firmness in policy, too often he goes for flashiness and then he has to rethink it.”
Details of Mr Osborne’s summer holiday – including an ill-advised visit to a Russian oligarch’s yacht – also fuelled questions of his judgment, yet his survival of the events of 2008 have only reinforced his self-belief. Few question his political acumen. William Hague, a former Tory leader, used to practise for prime minister’s question time by asking the twenty-something Mr Osborne to impersonate Mr Blair. Mr Osborne’s 2007 party conference pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold struck a chord with voters, helping to deter Mr Brown from a snap election.
But Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, expresses a common view: “I’m torn between some degree of admiration for his political skills but a genuine worry that he doesn’t seem terribly serious about the big economic issues.”
Mr Osborne argues he would not have survived if he lacked economic judgment. He points to the solid relationships he has forged in the City and Washington. “George is clearly smart, curious, and patriotic,” says Robert Zoellick, World Bank president. “He is intellectually rigorous. He reaches out to develop and test ideas. He also has a good sense of humour. He is a true internationalist.”
Supporters point to his decision to oppose the government’s fiscal stimulus and commit to book-balancing spending cuts as hard but correct calls. Many Conservatives are egging him on to cut the size of the state – a mission he is eager to accept, even if he privately admits it could make him the most hated man in Britain. One senior Tory colleague is critical of Mr Osborne’s style, but admits: “He could be a very good chancellor and do some radical things.” He pauses and adds: “He just needs to be a bit less up himself.”
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