Chancellor George Osborne

George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, on Wednesday faced his biggest political challenge: turning a solid economic recovery into votes ahead of Britain’s general election on May 7.

Mr Osborne has not only been in charge of Britain’s finances since 2010, he is also Prime Minister David Cameron’s principal political adviser. His task with his sixth Budget is to convert their record into an election victory.

But the chancellor personifies the problem facing his Conservative party: while voters respect his economic repair job, voters do not entirely trust his motives. Does he represent the classic Tory stereotype: “efficient but cruel”?

Mr Osborne has been lauded around the world for presiding over a recovery which has seen UK economic growth accelerate to 2.6 per cent in 2014 and unemployment fall to 5.7 per cent — half the eurozone average.

However, while his “economic credibility” ratings are far ahead of his Labour rivals, voters have not warmed to the 43-year-old chancellor, whose chilly demeanour is seen by some to reflect an indifference to those at the bottom of society, beyond his moneyed social set in London.

When Mr Osborne appeared at the London Paralympic Games in 2012 to present medals, he was jeered. His challenge now is to show that he — and the Conservative party — is working for the good of the whole country.

Gideon Oliver Osborne was born in 1971, a scion of the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the heir of Sir Peter Osborne, 17th baronet, who co-founded the wallpaper designers Osborne & Little in 1968. He changed his name to George while at St Paul’s private school in west London, telling friends it sounded more prime ministerial.

He has struggled to throw off a public perception that he is defined by his privileged background. His plan to cut a further £12bn from welfare spending in the next parliament — support for the working-age poor — is cited as evidence that he does not care about those at the bottom.

But since 2012 — the darkest year for Mr Osborne as chancellor — he has been engaged in an attempt to remake both his own image and that of the Conservative party, trying to soften the edges of “the iron chancellor”.

“I got myself into a position where I wasn’t popular,” he told the Financial Times earlier this month, reflecting on a year when Britain’s economy was stuck in the doldrums and an over-elaborate Budget backfired.

Sitting in his office and getting on with the job was “a mistake”. Since he was not about to change his economic plan, he decided he needed to go out and sell it.

In 2013 the economy started to pick up and by April 2014 his net approval rating had gone from minus 33 to plus 3 in just 12 months. A newly emboldened chancellor — with a new image — hit the road with a “hard hat” tour of industrial sites across the country.

He went on the 5:2 diet — he says he shed two stone but is now off the punishing regime — and ditched the old hairstyle that prompted some detractors to compare him to “an 18th-century dandy”, replacing it with a “Caesar cut”.

Mr Osborne remains a fiscal disciplinarian but has discovered a zealous enthusiasm for state intervention, notably in regional policy. He is trying to develop a “northern powerhouse”— a loose collection of cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds — as a new economic hub.

He still wants to bear down on welfare spending but other aspects of his austerity programme — particularly cuts to key departments such as health and education — are now being relaxed as the economic recovery returns.

His Budget is a carefully pitched attempt to address Labour’s claim that he cares primarily about the rich: introducing a higher bank levy, a crackdown on tax avoidance and curbs on pension tax relief for the wealthy. Poorer workers will be rewarded with a tax cut.

But has Mr Osborne left it too late to change public perceptions? As Lynton Crosby, the Conservative party’s election chief, likes to put it: “You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”

Nevertheless Britain’s chancellor believes that ultimately the public will concede that even if they do not like him, he is still better placed than Labour to deliver five years of rising prosperity. His Budget is the last big chance for him to make that pitch.

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