George Osborne's image makeover is all but complete – but will it win him an election?

Inside Westminster

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The Independent Online

If George Osborne now wrote his career plan on the back of an envelope as Michael Heseltine allegedly once did, looking at how it has gone so far and how he’d like to be received from here on, it would probably say: 2012 – hated (booed at the Paralympics after his “Omnishambles Budget”); 2015 – respected (trusted to finish the job on the deficit); 2019 – loved (by his party, when it chooses David Cameron’s successor); 2020 – loved (by the voters at the next general election).

Although the Conservatives won this year’s election on a “party of working people” ticket, it was a piece of positioning without much substance. Mr Cameron and  Mr Osborne were lucky generals to have such weak Labour opponents.  Now the Chancellor uses the power of office to fill out  the blank pages of “blue collar Conservatism” and the “One Nation” mantra Mr Cameron hurriedly alighted upon as he wrote his unplanned victory speech.

I noted here last week that, to counterbalance £12bn of welfare cuts, Mr Osborne would need a rabbit in his Budget hat. He produced a giant, very cuddly one  – a £9-an-hour national living wage by 2020.

Allies insist the Chancellor is not motivated by playing political games or setting traps for his opponents, but only by doing what is right. However, his surprise wages boost managed to skewer his external and internal opponents in one go –outflanking both Labour, which offered an £8-an-hour minimum wage by 2020 at the election, and Boris Johnson, his main rival for the Tory succession, who has championed the Living Wage as Mayor of London. Yes, we can quibble about the detail: Mr Osborne has rebranded the minimum wage rather than adopted the real Living Wage, which is based on living costs and already stands at  £7.85 an hour --and £9.15 in London. Inevitably, a £4bn wages rise cannot compensate for £12bn of welfare cuts. But this was very good politics. For good measure, Mr Osborne even settled an old score with a former rival, dismantling the tax credits system created by Gordon Brown. This week Tory MPs were buying shares in the Chancellor and selling Boris Johnsons and Theresa Mays.

 

By sounding counter-intuitive, politicians grab voters’ attention, but they sometimes disguise their real actions. Tony Blair talked right on the economy, public services and law and order but acted left,  introducing the national minimum wage, tax credits and boosting spending on health and education. The voters liked a Tory-sounding leader they trusted on the economy who was committed to social justice, offering the best of both worlds.  Ed Miliband was right to identify inequality as the issue of our times, but the public did not trust him on the economy.

Now Cameron & Osborne take a leaf out of the playbook of Mr Blair, who in private they still call “The Master.” They know the Tories might not have such a weak opponent as Mr Miliband in 2020. So they have tackled the party’s image problem as being too close to their rich business friends by forcing companies by law to pay a decent wage.  The Chancellor shamelessly stole other Miliband clothes on non-doms; the bank levy; hedge funds and apprenticeships. But overall, the Tories are not acting left; the spending cuts to be announced in the autumn will remind us of their right-wing instincts.

Yet the Budget tells us that Cameron & Osborne are pragmatists rather than ideologues: target dates for cuts and clearing the deficit come and go, as they did in the last parliament. They wisely seek to colonise the centre ground while Labour is off the pitch. Indeed, Labour seems to be having a long team talk in the dressing room, while the crowd watch the Tories get on with running the country.

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Mr Osborne’s sights are firmly on 2020 (Getty)

Labour is repeating its  2010 mistake, when its leadership contest gave the Tories room to blame the financial crisis on the Labour Government’s overspending. It wasn’t true but the voters bought it, and it harmed Labour in this year’s election.

This week Harriet Harman, the acting leader, and Chris Leslie, the shadow Chancellor, backed Mr Osborne’s 1 per cent limit on public sector pay rises. They know that appearing to oppose every cut in the last parliament did Labour no good. But my phone rang hot on 9 July as the four Labour leadership contenders attacked the wicked Osborne plan as they wooed Labour and union members.  It is not the right signal to the country. As Yvette Cooper has noted, there are likely to be more self-employed than public sector workers by 2020.

Mr Osborne’s sights are firmly on that date. So can his party and country learn to love him? With the ranks of the “Friends of George” growing among Tory MPs and ministers, he is well-placed to win the party crown.

Mr Osborne has had an image makeover, but losing two stones and getting a new haircut is not going to win him a general election. His public performances are getting better but he has not yet acquired Mr Cameron’s prime ministerial polish. One Tory MP summed up the difference between them: “Cameron is a brilliant act in public but has no time for small talk in private; he can be quite rude. Osborne is wonderful company in private but sometimes looks a bit sneering in public. He needs to show people the real him.”

Mr Osborne has a much better chance of moving from Number 11 to Number 10 than he did a week ago. If he does, we will look back on this landmark Budget as the launchpad, the moment he turned from Treasury axeman into the guy who gave the low paid the wage rise they deserved.

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