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

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star