When a General Election approaches, politicians inevitably wonder what they will be doing next in their very insecure trade. One who thinks he will still be in the same job after 7 May is George Osborne.
The Chancellor presents his sixth Budget tomorrow but is quietly confident it will not be his last. He believes the Conservatives will retain power and that he will remain at the Treasury. If he wanted to move, he could switch to the Foreign Office.
Mr Osborne has thought about it but rejected the idea. However, he does intend to take on a pivotal role leading the renegotiation of Britain’s European Union membership terms ahead of the in/out referendum David Cameron has promised by 2017.
Cameron aides insist there would be a three-man team of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Mr Osborne. But the Chancellor’s involvement would be highly significant, as it could tip the scales in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. While Mr Hammond is happy to contemplate life outside it, both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne want to secure a deal good enough for them to recommend an “in” vote to the British people.
In pictures: Chancellor George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement
It would be another big job for the man whose writ already runs way beyond the Treasury. He oversees the Tories’ election campaign, attending two key meetings a day in Downing Street.
He has played a key role in Mr Cameron’s ministerial reshuffles, when MPs known as “the Friends of George” have prospered. “You are either a friend of George or you are not; there’s no in-between,” complained one Tory MP who is not.
Tomorrow’s Budget will be a tricky juggling act for the Chancellor as he offers some pre-election sweeteners without diluting the Tories’ plea to be allowed to “finish the job” on the deficit. Friends admit another challenge: to convince people that everyone is benefiting from the recovery, not just the Tories’ rich friends, as many voters suspect – the party’s potential Achilles heel.
Mr Osborne undermined his “we’re all in it together” mantra by cutting the 50p top rate of tax to 45p in his “omnishambles” 2012 Budget. It is seen by his fellow Tory modernisers as one of the party’s two biggest mistakes since 2010 – along with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reorganisation (which the Chancellor now regrets not halting).
2012 was Mr Osborne’s “annus horribilis”. His Budget unravelled amid headlines about a “pasty tax”, “granny tax” and other unforced errors in the small print, and he was booed at the Paralympics.
The Chancellor realised he needed to “get out more” from his Treasury bunker.
Since then, he has visited countless factories and building projects in his never-ending “hard hat tour” to send a message to voters that he is rebuilding the economy.
The son of a baronet who co-founded the Osborne & Little wallpaper designers, Mr Osborne tried to soften his “posh” image. He hired Thea Rogers, a BBC producer; lost two stone on the 5:2 diet and got a new haircut. His personal ratings have improved markedly.
Any disputes with his closest political friend Mr Cameron are resolved behind closed doors rather than through the newspapers. Although Mr Osborne copied Gordon Brown’s tactic of laying traps for the other main party, he has been determined to avoid the wars which scarred the Blair-Brown era.
Nor does the Chancellor spend his time obsessing how he might move from No 11 to No 10. There is no point because his own fortunes are inextricably linked to Mr Cameron’s.
If the Tories lose power in May, the Chancellor would be damaged and would be highly unlikely to run for the party leadership. More likely, he would back Boris Johnson as the “stop Theresa May” candidate.
Although Mr Cameron insists he would serve a full five-year term if he remains prime minister, the betting in Tory circles is that he would quit after the EU referendum in 2017. At that point, the man who had been his Chancellor and right-hand man for seven years might be well-placed in the race to succeed him.
Reports that Mr Osborne has given up hope of becoming Tory leader are wide of the mark. His image makeover points in the opposite direction. As one ally remarked: “It’s a game of snakes and ladders. It all depends on who’s up and who’s down when the contest is held.”
There is no doubting the Chancellor’s ambition. After all, Mr Osborne changed his name from Gideon to George while he was at school because it sounded more prime ministerial.Reuse content