Austerity now, posterity later

George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor, by Janan Ganesh, Biteback, RRP£20, 368 pages

Any bookworm interested in Britain’s Conservative party must enjoy devouring political biographies of its leading figures. I nevertheless had one or two concerns about reviewing this study of George Osborne – essentially the tale of a talented trendspotter who, by plunging into a pretty small pond when it was at its shallowest, ends up as one heck of a big fish before he’s even reached his 40th birthday.

The “instant bio” is hardly a genre crammed with classics. This one has not only been written with the full co-operation of its subject (and therefore all his chums and cheerleaders), but by a gifted columnist on the very newspaper you’re reading. If The Austerity Chancellor turned out to be a tame turkey, what on earth was I going to say?

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried too much. Janan Ganesh has produced a book that readers of all sorts will enjoy and dip into in the future. The author really knows his stuff, yet he also leaves plenty of room for argument – both substantive and stylistic.

We may as well get the latter out of the way first. A serial offender myself, I can only urge Ganesh to seek counselling in order to curb his addiction to alliteration before it accelerates out of control. He might also want to think about getting some treatment for his worrying tendency to slip into Jeffrey Archer-speak (“All the world’s a stage, but Osborne had only ever wanted to perform in the Mother of Parliaments”) or to channel legendary gossip columnist Nigel Dempster (so many screamingly posh names are checked that at times I lost track).

Yet once we’re done with the chancellor’s silver-spoon (and ever-so-slightly bullying) schooldays, with his, like, totally amazing gap year, and his Brideshead-style Oxford experiences, things begin to pick up. Ganesh’s account of the fag-end of John Major’s government and the dog-days of opposition between 1997 and 2005 reads better and rings true. The same goes for his analysis of the Tories’ internally contested and ultimately incomplete modernisation which, combined with their decision to play up rather than play down austerity, cost them outright victory at the 2010 election.

Ganesh paints a convincing portrait of Osborne as someone with a “searing ambition to be a person of consequence” who is also a lifelong and unusually self-aware student and practitioner of politics. Not only is the chancellor “always on”, he is always learning. Moreover, he recognises his own limitations and invests (mostly cannily) in other people who can furnish him with the skills and know-how he lacks.

I think Ganesh is also on to something when he suggests that Osborne is not merely a tactician but a strategist – and a grand strategist at that. By cutting universal welfare benefits and public-sector jobs, the chancellor intends not simply to balance the books and to paint Labour into a corner. He also hopes, over time, to reverse Gordon Brown’s attempt to make clients of the state out of all of us and thereby “re-landscape the electoral terrain to make it more hospitable for the centre-right in the long run”.

Where Ganesh gets it wrong – for me anyway – is in his repeated insistence that Osborne is “allergic to ideology”. True, the chancellor has long been determined not to allow his party’s “tin-eared solipsism” and its tub-thumping Thatcherism to prevent it getting elected: he can count well enough to know that British voters, while they might be tough on crime, immigration and Europe, remain attached to their country’s key public services, to large parts of its welfare state, and to the idea that government has some role in and responsibility for the economy.

However, as Ganesh ends up showing, this does not mean that Osborne’s underlying commitment to “pre-Keynesian” economic (as well as social) liberalism is any the less profound. When Osborne described his first emergency Budget as “unavoidable”, he wasn’t merely seeking to caricature opposition to it as deluded and irrational, he actually believed it. Evidently, he still does.

If Osborne is lucky and the economy eventually turns around, his refusal to follow previous Tory chancellors such as Reginald Maudling and Anthony Barber into making “a dash for growth” should see him inducted into the party’s hall of fame along with other tough-it-outters such as Howe, Lawson and Clarke. He may even go one better than them and end up as prime minister, although his biographer is not so sure whether he is really up for (and perhaps even up to) the job.

But if Osborne is unlucky, he will enjoy only one term and – just like a couple of unsuccessful Tory chancellors before him – will end up being remembered for a politically disastrous Budget with a couple of quasi-comic quick-fix taxes. For Rab Butler it was pots and pans. For Selwyn Lloyd it was ice creams and lollipops. For Osborne it can only be pasties and grannies.

There are many, even among his Westminster colleagues, who would see such an outcome as no more than the chancellor deserves. This book, for all its strengths, is unlikely to change that view.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London and author of ‘The Conservatives since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change’ (OUP)

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