In the past few weeks, it has become clear that all is not well in the good ship Tory party. The crew are not mutinous exactly, not even restive, but they are certainly concerned. The ship's captain is in no danger of being set adrift in a small boat. But there are grumbles about the chief officer Mr George Osborne.
He was, as we know, promoted very young. This inevitably causes resentment in political circles as, indeed, it does in all fields of endeavour where men and some women contend for the baubles of position.
Besides, Mr Osborne bore an habitual air of self-satisfaction. That made it worse. Perhaps this was not his fault. I myself was always being told, throughout my youth: "And take that impertinent grin off your face, Watkins." I would reply that this was the way I looked, all the time. Alas, it did no good.
With Mr Osborne, however, I suspect his expression was a truer sign of his character. To begin with, this did not matter. On the contrary; his air of self-confidence did him political good. And he came up with the results. The horrible year that Mr Gordon Brown and Mr Alistair Darling endured between the last two conference seasons was as much a consequence of Mr Osborne as it was of Mr David Cameron.
The changes to inheritance tax which he announced at last year's conference not only invigorated his party. They also worried the Government and, within days, caused Mr Darling and Mr Brown to modify their policies to take account of the Conservative proposals. At the time, No 10 gave out that Mr Brown was going to do something anyway, once the bits and pieces had all been put in place. But it sounded pretty feeble at the time, as it still sounds today.
It is a common literary device to exalt somebody's original position so as to depict his or her later fall in a more dramatic light – and to draw, usually, a facile moral. And so Icarus flew too close to the sun, the mighty fell in the midst of the battle, and the great batsman, after a run of bad luck, was pronounced by the cricket writers to be no longer worth a place in the side.
As with a cricket player, Mr Osborne has had his bad luck. Or perhaps he should have kept quiet about Lord Mandelson, or, at any rate, confined himself to telling his friends and relations instead of going off to the papers. He should clearly have given a wide berth to yachts.
But then, Mr Cameron was himself flitting about in a similar fashion, and he has largely escaped censure. At that point, Mr Cameron was seeking to ingratiate himself with Mr Rupert Murdoch, as Mr Brown and Mr Tony Blair had done before him, in both cases with a fair degree of success; while Mr Osborne was trying his luck with a no-good boyo from Russia who failed to produce any discernible benefit.
Mr Osborne has been judged harshly by his supporters. The trouble is that he, Mr Cameron and their party are now, as the Governor of the Bank of England has recently announced, living in a different world. As the poet A E Housman put it, they are strangers and afraid, in a world they never made. The Governor at least had a year's warning, but even he did not notice the change till quite recently; or so he informed a Commons committee.
HM The Queen was quite right to complain, as apparently she did in passing, that the economists had given
no advance warning of the impending financial crisis. Economists are all very well in their place: but she has a Prime Minister to keep her informed, whom she sees once a week. What was Mr Brown up to for the past year and more?
Mr Brown's latest wheeze is tax-cutting. The junior minister at Work and Pensions, Mr Tony McNulty, predicted in his usual robust and possibly tactless way that any cash in hand would be gratefully received. It would be used to pay off outstanding debts incurred through the Brown years (though Mr McNulty did not say that specifically) and to meet household expenses. What other purposes could it possibly be used for?
The other purposes are to win the election and to embarrass the other parties. The Liberal Democrats have a perfectly good record of wanting to take low-paid people out of tax completely. Instead of building on this hope and, incidentally, reminding Mr Brown of the 10p fiasco, Mr Nick Clegg chose to try to get rid of the tax-the-rich tag, with the consequence that it was confusion all round.
For Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the consequences are more serious. They jettisoned the Conservative doctrine of automatic reductions in tax and it helped to lose their party the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. Mr Osborne promulgated the rule, if rule it was, that taxpayers would take a half-share in the proceeds of growth. But if there was to be no growth, where was the half-share to come from?
As for Mr Cameron, he told the last conference that he was a "man with a plan". What that plan was, remained invisible to the naked eye, or even to a high-powered electronic microscope. And when Mr Darling proposes his tax cuts, what are Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne to do? Are they to welcome the Government's announcements, or to say that they do not go far enough, or to proclaim that they are destructive of all the principles of sound finance on which this great party had formerly been based? It is a feature of politics: to extricate themselves from a difficulty, a party will create even greater troubles for their opponents, as happened over the independent deterrent in the 1960s.
The Tories are even talking of sending for Mr William Hague in Mr Osborne's place. My guess is that it will not happen, but in any case Mr Hague is reported to have said he does not want the job. Mr Osborne has already relinquished his post as head of the party organisation without becoming party chairman. That place is still held by Ms Caroline Spelman, who is held in a position of suspended animation on account of alleged irregularities over her expenses. She plays, as far as one can see, no active part in the life of her party.
No doubt, as the election approaches, Mr Cameron can fill the chairman's position with somebody or other. Mr Osborne can carry on in his old role as shadow Chancellor. However, Mr Kenneth Clarke still has all his hair and remains fluent in the House and on television, even if he is 68. The history of his party would have been different if he had become leader in 1997 or 2001.
In all this, Mr Cameron has no need to worry quite as much as his party is evidently doing. Objectively, as the Marxists used to say, he is still set to win the election. The last three Conservative prime ministers who attained office for the first time around were all surrounded by doubts. Edward Heath was regarded as outgunned; Margaret Thatcher, an inexperienced woman; John Major, sure to lose because of the recession.
Mr Cameron went through a brief period of turbulence in 2007. Then Mr Brown had a terrible time. Mr Brown has been revived temporarily by a shot of bad news in the arm. The Tories are still favourites.Reuse content