George Osborne's on the up, but there's a flaw in his plan

His standing with the public is dismal, but his reputation grows as the economy does

Share

Someone has to win the next election. This is the quality of political analysis that I know you have come to expect from this column. At some point after 7 May 2015, probably within five days – that was how long it took last time – either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will probably emerge as prime minister.

I recently considered what would happen if Labour lost, and pointed out that, if it did, Yvette Cooper might be leader of the party in little more than a year's time – although there is a chance that one of the 2010 intake could come from nowhere. I thought it was surprising that there had been so little interest in this scenario.

The same could not be said for the opposite scenario. Until recently, it had been assumed that if the Conservatives lose in 2015, the leadership contest would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the Home Secretary who finally put Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan. But now the newspapers are full of George Osborne's claim to the succession.

It is a paradox that Tory MPs should choose now to engage in speculation about Cameron's successor – just as the economy is growing strongly, when a "we're making progress, don't let Labour ruin it" message has a chance of cutting through.

First it was reported that Osborne had challenged Johnson, the Mayor of London, to stand as an MP next year, so that he would be bound to the success or failure of the Cameron re-election campaign. Then The Spectator revealed that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had told Rupert Murdoch he wants the Chancellor to succeed Cameron when the time comes. And yesterday Gove told the Financial Times that the number of Etonians in No 10 was "ridiculous", which was reported as an attack on Boris, although it was no more than a factual observation.

Indeed, I doubt that recent stories are the result of a deliberate campaign by Osborne to promote himself. It seems more likely that they are the by-product of Tory MPs talking about it, and of Boris's supporters reacting to their talking about it.

However, Osborne's position has certainly strengthened. His standing with the public remains dismal, but as the economy grows so does his reputation. And he has a machine. Tory MPs know that his patronage is a route to promotion. Against him the Home Secretary has a small band of admirers, and Boris has a disorganised feeling that he is the only Tory who might appeal to non-political floating voters.

And, just as Osborne rises, so May and Johnson have fallen. This month's net immigration figures, more than double the target of 100,000 a year, may have been the foreseeable consequence of economic growth, and it may have been foolish for Cameron to set a target for a number over which the Government has no control, but it is May's reputation that suffers. Meanwhile, Boris is paying the price for his laziness and for his Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture in November, in which he said discussion of equality needed to take IQ levels into account. He is still the most popular politician in the country, but he is less popular than he used to be. In our ComRes Favourability Index last month, he was only five points ahead of Cameron, having been 13 points ahead last summer.

Any consideration of the Tory succession, though, has to go through the mechanics. First, Tory MPs have to vote to choose two of their number; second, these two go to a ballot of party members in the country. If Boris doesn't stand as an MP at the election, he would have to fight a by-election soon after just to be eligible for stage one. So, he might as well go for it at the general election, and hold two offices, as MP and mayor, for the last year of his mayoral term. Only if elected as leader of the opposition would he be expected to stand down as mayor, in which case Victoria Borwick, the "statutory deputy mayor", might take over until the 2016 mayoral election.

It is hard to predict how the new Conservative parliamentary party might vote. Boris was a useless shadow minister, and has few natural supporters, but if Cameron has lost the general election, Boris is the only national figure with that winning stardust at the polling booths. Theresa May or a "fresh" candidate such as Philip Hammond might come through with the support of the Eurosceptic right, but I guess Boris Johnson and George Osborne would come top of the MPs' poll.

In which case, how will the dwindling number of Tory members in the constituencies vote? They were surveyed last year, by YouGov for Professor Tim Bale, my colleague at Queen Mary University of London: 38 per cent of them said they would vote for Boris, and only three per cent for Osborne. (May was on 18 per cent, but we are assuming she was eliminated at the MPs' stage.)

That is a huge gap to close, and there is a flaw in Osborne's growth-driven reputation. If the Tories lose the election next year, his economic progress will have failed to save the party. Boris Johnson, for all his floundering, is still the candidate to beat.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas