Eight years ago this summer, shortly after the Conservatives' third successive election defeat, George Osborne announced he was not interested in standing as Tory leader because his priority was to restore the party's lost economic credibility, long gone the way of its electoral chances.
He told The Daily Telegraph: "I have a big enough job being Shadow Chancellor, opposing Gordon Brown and developing an economic policy that broadens the appeal of the Conservative Party." Last week, at the press gallery lunch in Westminster, the Chancellor declared that "opposition to what I am doing in the economy is crumbling". His mission from 2005 seems all but accomplished, in his eyes. So what is the Chancellor's next eight-year plan?
In 2005, Lynton Crosby (then, like now, the Tories' election strategist) advised the 34-year-old Osborne that he was too young to be Tory leader. Now 42, that no longer applies. When he was asked about his leadership ambitions at Thursday's lunch, Osborne said he was happy doing the job of Chancellor – a hardened and varnished old conker of a reply for the politically ambitious, and also one that echoes his 2005 declaration. Whenever we play the game of tipping the next Tory leader, Boris Johnson and Theresa May are named first, and the bookies have Osborne at 16-1. In the general public's eyes, he is effigy material. But does this mean he should be overlooked as a future leader? And can it really be the ultimate ambition of a 42-year-old man to stay in the same job he's already had, in opposition and in government, for eight years?
Owing to his performance on Thursday, I think the answer is no on both counts. In the morning, he was in full electioneering mode by telling the Treasury select committee there would be no tax rises if the Tories win the next election. At lunch, he was all well-rounded self-deprecation, ridiculing his own image as a toff – saying he only chose a Byron burger as a takeaway because McDonald's "had run out of McLobster" and joking about President Obama's "Jeffrey" gaffe. Osborne then launched into an assessment of where the political centre ground lies, sounding for all the world like Tony Blair.
These may just be the words of a man with his eyes firmly on the coming election campaign. But he must also wonder what happens if the Tories do not win, which would surely force a leadership contest. If, by 2015, the UK economy has stable economic growth of 2 or 3 per cent, yet an outright majority has eluded the Conservatives, Osborne is in a strong position to lead his party.
This prospect makes his 20-year friendship with David Cameron interesting. A year ago, after the omni-shambles Budget, Osborne was a liability for the Prime Minister. Cameron was being urged to sack his Chancellor. Today, the problem is turned on its head. Now it is the PM who is the subject of criticism among Tory MPs. The economy is looking healthier. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his policy, Osborne can be credited with the greatest hard-nosed political project of recent years, driving through austerity against all advice. Now, the stagnating economy is looking healthier, and there was no double-dip recession after all. Osborne is, arguably, more of a threat to the Prime Minister as a successful Chancellor than as a discredited one. He may be doing everything he can to secure an election victory, but it's not the end of his world if they lose.
Sitting a few seats away from the Chancellor at the Thursday lunch was Nigel Lawson, one of his predecessors at No 11 who also achieved something that the younger Tory failed at – becoming a journalist. How is Nigella, I asked Lord Lawson, immediately feeling that it was a stupid question in the circumstances, given that days earlier she had learnt her husband was divorcing her in the pages of a Sunday newspaper following those horrific pictures at Scott's restaurant. Her father looked concerned for his daughter, but said: "She'll survive. She is tough, like me, it's in her genes." As Christopher Hitchens wrote about his own daughters, "nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away".
In the game of snakes and ladders that is Westminster, the vituperation and venom, plotting and partisanship are what the political class feeds on, as we saw with PMQs last week. But very rarely does a political row spin so out of control that someone dies. That happened 10 years ago this Wednesday, when David Kelly took his own life after being caught up in the vicious war between Tony Blair's government and the BBC. Looking back, it is striking how long the row took to build up – it began with a Today programme broadcast on 29 May, and ended when Dr Kelly's body was found on 18 July. Statements from No 10 attacking the BBC would be faxed over to the Press Association, where I worked. I wonder whether, if a similar row were to erupt today, in the age of Twitter, it would be so protracted. Political rows and scandals are more intense with Twitter, but they also come to a head and blow over much sooner. It is impossible to tell whether Dr Kelly would still be alive if Twitter had existed then, but it is hard to imagine such a long-running scandal today.
Intriguing counterfactual revelation from Greg Barker, the energy and climate change minister, who says that the last Tory government could have chosen to hide the nation's electricity pylons underground as a "legacy" for the millennium. Instead the cash was assigned to the ill-fated Millennium Dome, which was then inherited by Tony Blair, and is only now making money as the 02 Arena thanks to Beyoncé and her magnificent legs, which bestride the stage – a bit like an electricity pylon. Barker says: "It is not that I do not like a concert – I certainly do – but I cannot help thinking that, as a gift to future generations, undergrounding the complete pylon network might have been something that we could all cheer for long after Beyoncé has departed."Reuse content