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The slightly dishevelled figure in the tracksuit and T-shirt stoops down and carefully scoops up the dog excrement deposited on the Downing Street lawn by Lola, a diminutive bichon frise. It is shortly after 6am on a February morning. The security cameras swivel as the man and his winsome dog complete their morning constitutional, the start of a normal day for George Osborne.
“I sometimes wonder what the security guys are thinking,” Osborne smiles. But the early morning ritual serves as a metaphor for the task that Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer says he has performed for the nation: clearing up the mess left by the last Labour government, putting the country on the path to recovery. It is an economic record that Osborne hopes will secure victory for the Conservative party in Britain’s general election on May 7. Ultimately, some believe that if the British revival continues it could have another welcome consequence for the chancellor, propelling the 43-year-old from 11 Downing Street to the more prestigious address next door.
Osborne insists that when it comes to the top job, “I just don’t think about it”. But for anyone who thinks that the chancellor has given up any hope of ever becoming prime minister — the commentator Peter Oborne recently asserted “he has abandoned all realistic prospect of becoming Tory leader, not just now but ever” — a day on the road in Osborne’s company might lead one to a very different conclusion.
The chancellor is at the centre of a slick and extensive operation ostensibly aimed at promoting the Conservative party’s “long-term economic plan” but which is also part of a radical repositioning of Osborne himself: an attempt to turn him from one-time political “submarine” (hidden away from hostile voters) to one of the central figures of the Tory election campaign.
The polls show he has a commanding lead over Labour on economic competence, based on a record of bringing down Britain’s borrowing, restoring growth and cutting unemployment. But the public has never warmed to him; polls suggest voters see him as the embodiment of the “efficient but cruel” Tory stereotype. Osborne’s plans to keep cutting spending through to 2020 would leave Britain with the smallest state — as a share of national output — since the 1930s.
The question is whether Osborne’s tough economic medicine — five years of austerity with more to come — will provide a platform for the Conservatives to win the election. The results may be starting to come through, but later than the chancellor expected. His fundamental message is: “We’re on the right track, don’t turn back.” He says it will resonate with voters; if he is right, and the Tories triumph on May 7, after five years of cohabitation with the centrist Liberal Democrats, his reputation will be secure.
Osborne is more than just a fiscal hard man. He is discreetly at odds with many in a Conservative party which has an increasingly strident eurosceptic and socially conservative wing. He privately reassures business and City leaders that he will fight for Britain to stay in a reformed EU, his socially liberal views reflect his metropolitan upbringing in London, and he is more relaxed about immigration than Cameron.
Yet on other issues, such as cutting the welfare state and foreign policy, he is on the right of the party. “On foreign policy he is almost a neocon, infatuated by whatever Washington says,” says one minister who sits with him on the national security council. “He’s almost childlike in that respect.” But it is his chilly public persona which seems to carry most weight with the public.
A senior Tory MP says: “He’s less of a toff than David Cameron but he looks like more of a toff. It’s biology: those dark eyes, the pale skin. It looks like he’s sneering at people.” Can the man who was booed in the London Olympic stadium while handing out medals at the Paralympics shift public opinion?
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He is certainly giving it a go. Dog duties dispensed with, Osborne heads off to Yorkshire on an intense and immaculately choreographed regional tour, in which the chancellor is the star of his own movie. He has more costume changes than Beyoncé and is placed in locations where you would never expect to find this public-school educated Londoner. One objective is to shift public perceptions of the Conservative party as being too southern, too remote, too much in love with the City of London. Fortuitously, these are also the negative personal associations Osborne wants to shed.
Attended by a small retinue of trip planners and media advisers, Osborne speeds through the Yorkshire lanes for his first appointment of the morning. “These are long days,” he warns. He is wearing a black jacket and blue sweater but before long he has changed into a green waterproof jacket of the kind worn by James Herriot for the purpose of delivering calves.
Thea Rogers, a BBC producer hired by Osborne to improve his media image, and her team have set up the first of a number of improbable but telegenic encounters with a range of television companies, which initially sees the chancellor — a founder member of the uber-metropolitan Tory “Notting Hill set” — try his hand at repairing a dry stone wall.
Osborne is self-aware and can see the funny side of the whole artifice, delivering his boyish giggle when someone quips that the wall he has just repaired has fallen down. He makes running jokes about his propensity to don a hard hat at the slightest opportunity — he even has a bespoke helmet in his office — and moots the idea of a “postmodern” visit to a hard hat factory.
In Westminster circles, Osborne is widely seen as better company than the prime minister — a reversal of the duo’s public image. One Liberal Democrat cabinet minister in the coalition government says: “He’s interested and interesting. He’s funny and he likes to gossip. David Cameron can give the impression of being lofty but that isn’t the case with Osborne.”
Osborne, though, seldom looks completely at ease outside his circle of trusted friends. While Cameron makes it look simple, Osborne’s small talk with locals quickly becomes businesslike. He clasps his long fingers intently; when he laughs, one can see him calculating if a joke has some hidden booby trap.
However, as Osborne chats at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Centre at Grassington, one can see how he is using his position as holder of the nation’s wallet to secure goodwill around the country — in spite of a deficit still running at more than 5 per cent of GDP. It might help the Tories win marginal seats; it also helps make friends who might one day be useful to his own personal ambitions.
Osborne notes the “brilliant investment” he made to help to secure the Grand Départ of last year’s Tour de France in Yorkshire. Today he announces some money for cycle paths around Skipton. It is a micro-announcement but one being replicated by Osborne around the country. “He’s on top of everything — party stuff, Treasury stuff, constituency stuff,” says Julian Smith, the local Conservative MP. “He’s in a different league.” Could he lead the party? “Yes, I think he will do it eventually.”
Another Tory MP later puts it like this: “If you’re in a marginal seat and you want something, George is the man you go and see. It’s not just about throwing out lumps of pork: if you’re dealing with an obstructive minister, George will get things done. It earns him a lot of goodwill.”
Having ticked the rural box, Osborne is now heading for Leeds — a major financial services centre with an expanding tech sector — and has made his third costume change in 45 minutes: this time into a trademark blue suit. His purpose is to extol what he describes as the government’s “long-term economic plan for Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire”. Reading his briefing notes on the way to Leeds he mutters under his breath, “Plan, plan, plan, plan”. The message discipline is almost suffocating.
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What is it about the north? True, Osborne represents the prosperous Cheshire seat of Tatton near Manchester — but it is only recently that he has thrown his energies into pursuing his “northern powerhouse” agenda, intended to link up cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds (electoral wastelands for the Tories) into a single economic unit, capable of becoming Britain’s second global hub alongside London. The “northern powerhouse” should be a Labour idea; instead, it is perhaps the best example of Osborne grabbing a concept and pursuing it when he can see economics, politics and personal ambition all aligning. “When that happens, he’s on to it in a flash,” says a fellow Tory MP.
The economics of the idea are simple enough, although local rivalries and Britain’s ongoing fiscal problems suggest delivery will require a “long-term plan” indeed to realise. The politics are that the Conservatives, and Osborne, need to tackle the strategic weakness of being seen as the political wing of the City of London.
Osborne says that his northern tour is the result of an epiphany that came at the end of 2012 — “probably the most difficult year for me in this parliament” — when he realised that something had to change in the way he did politics. It was the year of his “omni-shambles Budget”, the economy remained flat on its back, borrowing was still rising and he was booed at the 2012 Paralympics. “When I went out and there was jeering my immediate thought was, my children are here and this is obviously awful for them. I didn’t actually feel it was awful for me.
“I got myself into a position where I wasn’t popular,” he says. Sitting in his office and getting on with the job was “a mistake” and since he was not about to change his economic plan, he decided he needed to sell it. “I said, I’ve actually got to pick myself up and get out there and fight for my economic policy and explain it to people.”
In 2013 the economy started to pick up and by April 2014 his net approval rating had gone from -33 to +3 in just 12 months. A newly emboldened chancellor — with a new image — hit the road. He went on the 5:2 diet — he says he shed some 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. He denies, however, having training to deepen his voice.
“I wouldn’t think of it as image, really,” he says. “But in this day and age you have to make sure the visual image on television conveys the economic policy you’re trying to project.” But doesn’t the perception among some voters that he appears to be “sneering” at those at the bottom of society ring true? After all, his plan to cut a further £12bn from the welfare budget will punish people whose lives are remote from his own privileged upbringing.
“I reject that,” he says. “I care passionately about helping people have opportunities in their lives.” He is proudest of his achievement in bringing down unemployment and helping people back into work.
. . .
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. The eldest of four brothers, he grew up in a large town house in Notting Hill. He changed his name to George while at St Paul’s private school in west London, telling friends it sounded more prime ministerial.
He lives in Downing Street with his wife Frances, a novelist, and his young children Luke and Liberty, who pestered him into taking the family on holiday in a VW camper van in Britain’s Peak District last year — a holiday that also had the advantage of being more voter-friendly than previous vacation destinations such as Klosters or the yacht of a Russian oligarch. Unlike Cameron, whose children go to state schools, Osborne’s kids go to a private prep school. Osborne has a social circle that extends beyond Westminster, reflecting a hinterland that takes in theatre, opera, skiing and an obsession with US politics.
He followed the classic trajectory of Britain’s modern political elite, passing through Oxford university, where he read modern history, and various backroom jobs with the Tory party before becoming MP for Tatton in 2001. His political acumen and ability to second-guess his opponents marked him out, and within four years he was being talked about as a future leader of his party.
So when the vacancy arose in 2005 with the resignation of Tory opposition leader Michael Howard, why did Osborne not run for the top job? Why did he stand aside and run the leadership campaign of David Cameron?
One answer is immediately apparent when one sees the two men in action together on stage in Leeds at a joint event in a trendy converted chapel, now a centre for tech companies. They make a good double act but Cameron commands the room; charming and self-deprecating, he exudes the air of the well-bred company chairman. It is clear who is in charge. Osborne on the other hand has the air of the bone-dry finance director armed with a flip chart, detailing job creation, business start-ups and other data on the local economy.
So how does the most powerful relationship in British politics work? Osborne takes time out from his schedule, sits down, leans forward, hands clasped, and begins to explain how it was that he decided, a decade ago, not to challenge Cameron for the top job. “I think enough time has passed,” he says.
“I’d spoken to David Cameron, who was my closest friend and is my closest friend in politics, and it was clear he wanted to run for the leadership,” Osborne says. However, Michael Howard, the outgoing leader, who had made Osborne the Tories’ shadow chancellor, told Osborne that he wanted him to seriously consider running as leader of the party.
“I was somewhat taken aback,” he says. “I went away, spoke to Frances, spoke to my parents, spoke to a couple of very close friends of mine in politics like William Hague [another former Tory leader].” He spent the night watching Shakespeare’s Henry IV — he can’t remember which part — “with the drama and the intrigue on the stage and people being assassinated”. It was an omen: he decided he was taking enough of a risk at the age of 34 in taking on the job of shadow chancellor.
He says he simply was not ready for the top job: “I wasn’t remotely in that space so I thought, that’s not what I want to do.” So was there any “deal”, similar to the supposed 1994 agreement between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant in Islington that Blair would become Labour leader and would hand over to Brown at some point in the future? “There was never any deal — that’s not the nature of our relationship,” Osborne says. “I didn’t tell David Cameron I wouldn’t run for the leadership of the party until after I’d told the newspapers because I didn’t want there to be any suggestion we’d done a deal.
“If there’s ever a moment when we don’t agree, I say: ‘You’re the prime minister, you decide.’” Splits rarely surface, although it is known that Osborne wanted to introduce a “mansion tax” as part of a coalition deal to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 40p in 2012; Cameron overruled him.
Osborne laughs when it is put to him that the two of them are too alike, that they lack creative tension. “We have good vigorous discussions in private,” he says. Do they shout? “No!” How is it that the relationship has not yet blown up? “Crucially I don’t sit around, as I think Gordon Brown did, looking at David Cameron or Tony Blair and thinking, I could be doing this job, I should have done this job, they chose the wrong person,” Osborne says.
Nadhim Zahawi, a well-connected Tory MP, insists the two men effectively share power: “David and George are co-CEOs and that’s a good thing.” Osborne’s hand is clearly visible in government reshuffles. “If you’re not a Friend of George, forget it,” says one disgruntled Tory MP. But the chancellor, who often refers in conversation to the prime minister as “Cameron”, says: “He is the boss and he takes the final decision if there’s ever a disagreement between us.”
But the differences between the two men are less important than the similarities: Cameron and Osborne are umbilically linked, part of the same “modernising” project. If Cameron loses the election on May 7, Osborne’s prospects of ever leading the party will go down with him. The two men still need each other and Osborne still needs Cameron to succeed.
However, in the 2015 election campaign there is much more of a sense that the Tory project is a joint enterprise between prime minister and chancellor. In the 2010 campaign Osborne was seen as liable to scare the voters and he largely confined himself to the party’s chaotic campaign headquarters in London; today’s joint visit to Yorkshire is evidence that his economic credibility is now an electoral asset.
Osborne and Cameron head out of Leeds, this time to the set of the television soap Emmerdale, a Yorkshire Potemkin village made up of apparently genuine but uninhabitable stone cottages, pubs and shops. It becomes apparent that neither Osborne nor Cameron has ever watched the show, but the prime minister suggests, improbably, that he might in the future: “I must tune in,” he says.
At this point Cameron and Osborne go their separate ways: the prime minister returning to London and the chancellor heading to the Spooner factory in Ilkley and, as night starts to close in on the Yorkshire hills, to a Nestlé chocolate factory in Halifax. As the trip progresses, it becomes clear that Osborne’s interest in a northern revival is more than just positioning: it is evidence of a new and more complex credo emerging.
When he arrived in 2010 at the Treasury — a body noted for its centralising control-freakery — Osborne appeared to have little interest in devolving power or money to the regions. He seemed most like his political hero, Nigel Lawson, the small-state, tax-cutting, rightwing Tory chancellor of the 1980s.
But Osborne describes himself nowadays as a “mix of Heseltine and Lawson”, the former a reference to Michael Heseltine, the centrist One Nation Tory minister dedicated to state intervention and reversing the decline of the north.
“What’s the point of doing these jobs if you don’t try to intervene to solve problems?” Osborne says, as he heads for his final engagement of the day: an 8pm Tory party meeting in Morley, which falls within the constituency of Ed Balls, his Labour opposite number. “Some people have said I’m a small-state Conservative. I would not have come into politics if I did not think there was a role for the state.” His post-epiphany decision to get out of his Downing Street office in late 2012 and head into the real world transformed his political outlook.
So what will Osborne do next? If the Tories lose the election on May 7, Cameron would almost certainly quit and a leadership contest featuring Theresa May, home secretary, and Boris Johnson, the London mayor, would probably follow. Osborne’s hopes of becoming the leader in those circumstances would be slim indeed. A YouGov poll in December found that just 13 per cent of people thought Osborne would be a good Tory leader, compared with 29 per cent for Johnson and 39 per cent for May.
Osborne is a fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the story of Henry VIII’s chancellor of the exchequer, who made himself indispensable to the king; the speculation is that Osborne would be kingmaker to Boris, the socially liberal metropolitan toff, over the spiky May. “I have a huge amount of respect for him,” he says. “I like being with him, I like his company and he’s very interesting on politics.” He adds that May is also doing “an amazing job”.
But Osborne is not expecting the Tories to lose on May 7. Indeed, a day spent with the chancellor is to witness a man laying down plans for a Tory victory which could — serendipitously — also help him rise to the top when Cameron eventually steps down.
Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, paints a dystopian vision of Britain if Osborne prevails, stressing why Labour must win: “We’re not going to go back to the 1930s and have spending at 35 per cent of GDP. I don’t want to have our children grow up in a society where people sit behind fences because there aren’t any police, or where children born into poverty stay in poverty, or where our National Health Service becomes Americanised.”
A Tory minister concedes that Osborne is “too easily caricatured as the person with the curled lip”. But Osborne’s key allies have been promoted; money has been handed down to grateful Tory MPs for local projects; a new agenda for Britain’s regions has been mapped out; Osborne’s image has been reinvented.
Does Osborne share the view of some Tory MPs that Cameron will stand down as prime minister in 2018 after his proposed EU referendum? “I don’t think he’s thinking about his retirement.” Would he be interested in the top job now? “I’ve still got much more to contribute but I can make those contributions from this office.” Osborne dismisses suggestions he might move to the Foreign Office after an election victory to oversee an EU renegotiation. After all, the Treasury is where the money is and, as Osborne says, “Good politics follows from good economics.”
At 9.30pm, Osborne leaves Morley and heads for his constituency home in Cheshire, arriving there at 11pm. The Conservative party’s greatest strategist is still insisting that he has no strategy for his own career: “I just don’t think about it. I know that constantly amazes people but in this job, there’s enough to be thinking about. Politics is full of people who have ambitions, only to suffer disappointments.” Osborne may not be making plans, but he is leaving nothing to chance.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor
Portraits by Philip Sinden
Photographs: Charlie Bibby and Marco Kesseler