George Osborne knows President Obama won by blaming a predecessor. That is why the Chancellor will make Gordon Brown central to the next election

Why the recent past is the most dangerously thorny terrain in politics.

Share

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has a reputation for being devious. I have always had doubts about this. The genuinely devious do not acquire a reputation for being so, but cleverly trick us all by appearing honestly candid. Perceptions of him are rather like those of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s. If Wilson lit his pipe colleagues and journalists were suspicious, sometimes with good cause. Still, his reputation for deviousness was so widespread he failed the ultimate trickster’s art of not appearing to be tricky. Osborne goes one step further. While appearing wily, sometimes he is surprisingly open, too open. Because everyone assumes he is devious, few notice.

Earlier this week the Chancellor wrote an article for The Times that was, at different points, sophisticated, perceptive, self-deceiving and projected with a whiff of almost endearing naivety. In their contrasts his words both worried parts of the Labour leadership deeply and gave them a degree of hope. They defined the battleground of the next election.

Osborne is seen as tactical game player and yet he quite openly plays the game. This is the naivety in the article, in which he reflects on the implications of President Obama’s victory for British politics. It reads like a private internal memo to David Cameron: “The US election and how we win next time.” I have never read an article quite like it from a senior Cabinet minister, let alone a Chancellor. 

The long road

It reflects by implication Osborne’s sincerely held attachment to economic and social liberalism, but is presented solely in terms of the electoral potential for the Tories. He notes that Obama’s most effective message was that the US was “beginning the long, hard road to recovery” by “laying the foundations for a modern, more balanced economy”. He concludes that voters agreed with the message “we’re on the right track”. Evidently this will be the essence of the Conservatives’ pitch at the general election.

Next, Osborne observes accurately that the Romney campaign never found an answer to the Democrats’ claim that the Republicans had got the country into the economic mess in the first place. Once again Osborne leaps forward to the next election, arguing that most voters here will blame the last Labour government, not least because the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, is more associated with the “mistakes of the last decade” than anyone else. Here before our eyes the supposedly devious Osborne announces the Tories’ second  election theme, more than two years in advance: Miliband and Balls caused this mess! Don’t let them near power ever again!

Famously Obama supported an economic stimulus, but Osborne argues he lost ground on this policy area and only made headway when he refocused on the “need to get our fiscal house in order”, evidently the Tories’ third election theme.

Osborne adds that Romney failed to convince ordinary hard-working voters that he was on their side. Astutely he suggests this comes down to values and indicates that the Conservatives’ wider message will be that they are on the side of “people who work hard and who want to get on”, citing the council tax freeze (which will almost certainly stay in place until the general election), the benefits cap and schools reform as evidence. In contrast he suggests Labour is on the side of militant teaching unions and opposed benefit caps, another part of the future electoral battleground highlighted two years in advance.

Finally, Osborne notes that the Republicans were on the wrong side of several social issues and points to his own support for gay marriage as electorally significant. He does not explain the case for gay marriage, although his support is genuine, but argues solely on the basis that polls suggest most voters support it.

Bowing to Bush

The flaws in Osborne’s election strategy are obvious. Obama’s approach to recovery is very different to his and it is comically disingenuous to suggest that only when he was acting differently to the Conservatives did he fail to make headway with US voters. There are also doubts about how many Tory MPs, and indeed ministers, will vote for gay marriage when the moment comes. Senior Labour figures cling to these flaws.

But in one area they know Osborne is on to something. He implies President Bush won the election for Obama, the leader in power when the economy crashed in 2008. Romney could not escape the recent past. This is not surprising: it is the most thorny terrain in politics. It defies reason and is shaped wholly by emotion, mainly rage. By 2010 the UK economy was growing again, yet mention Gordon Brown and some voters start frothing with anger. From Major to Brown, former Prime Ministers of the “recent past” were or are so loathed they choose hardly to appear in public. Only now is it safe for John Major to do so, as his period recedes and is subject to fresh objectively benevolent reflection.

How to deal with the recent past is a big unresolved issue for senior Shadow Cabinet members. Ignoring it is not an option because Osborne has kindly informed them he plans to fight the next election on this terrain. Ed Miliband has radical ideas for the future, forged partly in the hope of marking out distance from the recent past. But polls suggest, as Osborne notes, that more voters blame Labour than him for economic gloom.

For Miliband there is no solution, beyond a robust defence of what happened with a degree of contrition and keeping his fingers crossed that this wild terrain plays no decisive role. Ultimately only the passage of time makes the recent past recede. Leaders have little control over the economy. They have none over time. At least Osborne has given generous notice of precisely how he plans to win next time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little