Can living memory offer a politician half as baffling as George Osborne? As Shadow Chancellor he snatched eventual victory from the jaws of defeat with that cynically brilliant inheritance tax announcement in 2007, and within three years – as mastermind (ha-ha) of a dismally unfocused Tory election campaign – came within an ace of doing the reverse.
In between, he attempted the political equivalent of suicide by cop by goading Lord Mandelson into unsheathing his automatic over events on Corfu. So is he a genius or a clever fool? After a lively and high profile half decade for the plucky little wallpaper heir from Notting Hill the jury isn't even out yet, preferring to stay in its box staring at the defendant with eyebrows quizzically arched.
The confusion deepened this week – dramatically so – with the child benefit announcement designed to tease a "very brave, Chancellor, if I may say so – extraordinarily brave," from Sir Humphrey. What the tactical and strategic point of antagonising the Tory press and enraging a core Tory demographic to save a measly £1bn a year from an overspend of over £150bn might be, no one for now has much clue.
Is it an elephant trap for an ingenu Labour leader, to coax him into a full-frontal attack before he's had time to work out a credible answer to the Humphrys-Paxo question, "All right, Ed Miliband, it's all well and good criticising the Government, but tell us what savings you'd make instead?" Is it pre-emptively laying a defence – "Look, no one likes doing this, but be fair, we've hardly spared the middle class" – for savage assaults on the even less well off to come? Could it even be a kind of reverse gerrymander designed to drive the poor out of London, as one commentator suggests, and bring a Labour stronghold into play? Is it a bird that will soar higher than an eagle, or a plane that will go into a corkscrew spin immediately after take-off? Perhaps things will become clearer after the Comprehensive Spending Review in a fortnight, and perhaps they won't.
For now all that seems certain is this. Love him or loathe him... sorry, what the hell am I on about? The Osborne Fan Club, never all that concerned with booking an overflow hall for its annual conference, will need no more than a rubber dinghy after the CSR. Loathe him or loathe with a murderous rage, George Osborne is a politician of beguiling originality. He genuinely appears to have no ego at all.
I realise that previous sentence must look, even by the standards of this column, like arrant cobblers. No one capable of striking that Flock of Seagulls-meets-Flashman Bullingdon pose can be devoid of self-regard even 20 years later. Even today, he suggests less a man who would eat himself than a man who, having eaten himself, would stick a hand down his throat, bring himself up, and eat himself all over again.
For all the whiff of born-to-punish superiority that clings indelibly to him, this is a frontline politician of a selflessness that verges, to those conditioned by the Gordon Brown Treasury years, on the uncanny. Evidently Osborne has concluded, in defiance of the code of conduct that operates in the hyper-delusional Westminster madhouse, that he has no prospect of ever leading his party or his country.
It's at this point that one ought to pay obeisance to the qualification that stranger things have happened. But they haven't. Melting glaciers will refreeze before the Conservatives, let alone the country, seek a father figure in Sir George, as he will become on his own father's demise. So realistic about his appeal is he that he made barely a public appearance during the campaign he so maladroitly micro-managed.
How fantastically liberating this Millwallian approach to popularity must be. Freed from concerns about how policies will affect his personal standing that restricted Gordon Brown to stealth tax trimming at the margins, Osborne is more than prepared to become the panto villain of the age. He is actively willing it. This is the most masochistic politician since Stafford Cripps. He might as well be wearing the Ruth Kelly Memorial Opus Dei cilice under his Jermyn Street shirt.
Ideologue or no ideologue, the self-sacrifice has a more obvious strategic purpose than anyone can spot in the child-benefit changes. Repaying the loyalty showed him after Corfu with loan-shark interest, he has wrought himself into the perfect lightning rod for David Cameron. The more fire he attracts with the brutality of his intentions, the better able is the Prime Minister to assuage us with his charmingly sorrowful take on the pain his neighbour must by necessity cause. The badder the cop Osborne is, the gooder becomes Cameron.
There hasn't been a double act quite like this one at the top of British politics before, and as they embark on structural societal changes on a scale unseen since 1945, their boldness takes the breath away. The lesson they have learned from New Labour, or think they have learned, is that political capital must be speculated early to accumulate, not buried under the mattress for rainier days. Days come little rainier than those to come, of course, and they may be swept away in the ensuing monsoon. It is an enormous gamble.
So let no one accuse this Chancellor of being, like the one before last, a coward. Whether or not he kills them both in the process, he is laying down his political life for a friend who will assuredly sack him in a couple of years, as he knows, if the game turns out to be Russian roulette.
In his singular career, Osborne has been variously compared to a powdered wig-wearing pre-revolutionary French aristo, a cruel Victorian squire, and even (you will recall his Bullingdon nickname of "oik") the Regency edition Edmund Blackadder. We won't know for a while whether his plan is Baldrickian in its cunning, and at this embryonic stage guessing is pointless, but the above comparisons no longer fit.
What we are seeing from George Osborne now is a unique and fascinating self-portrait. Ageing fast under the pressure of bare-knuckling fighting with Cabinet colleagues, and already looking a little ravaged while the PM remains so smoothly baby-faced, he is the picture in the attic to David Cameron's Dorian Gray.Reuse content