Steve Richards: Out of the media limelight, but obsessed with headlines

In some ways the Osborne/Brown technique is highly effective, conferring on elusive public figures a gravitas that ubiquity always undermines

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:38

In a rather barren field, the Chancellor, George Osborne, is in danger of becoming interesting. He pursues a risky economic course with apparent resolution and yet, was pragmatic enough to change policies several times in opposition in an attempt to win the election.

His projection of the policy and, equally important, of himself is both ruthlessly brilliant and artlessly awkward. At this relatively early phase in Osborne's career it is not clear which side will prevail in relation to policy and projection. Will his pragmatic flexibility trump ideological attachment to 1980s style economics? Will his sometimes highly attuned use of the media overwhelm countervailing weaknesses?

The danger in an excess of interest is based on his own assessment of the hazardous path. I get the impression he is content for Nick Clegg to soak up the "interest". Osborne has opted for a relatively low public profile and does not seek the dazzle of fickle attention. He is the one that regards too much interest as dangerous.

Probably there are two reasons for this. It is difficult to overestimate the impact on him personally, before the election, of all the reports suggesting he was a liability to the Conservatives' cause. Politicians are human and even the most self-confident are bound to reflect on such findings with a degree of insecure melancholy. Now Osborne reads much more positive findings at least from surveys of Conservative supporters and in newspapers, but for such a pivotal figure he made few public appearances in the build-up to the last election and not that many in government.

The other reason for public self-effacement shows how the politics of the recent past are slightly more nuanced than orthodoxy allows. Osborne, like David Cameron, idolises Tony Blair and on the whole, views Gordon Brown with scathing disdain. And yet there are echoes of Brown's strategic approach in Osborne's. Brown opted for a relatively low profile for much of his time as Chancellor, using the big set-piece events in the Chancellor's year and the occasional interview for public definition. Osborne chooses to do the same.

This is unusual for a Chancellor. Denis Healey was everywhere in the 1970s, from dressing up as Father Christmas on Mike Yarwood's television show to giving interviews on the future of his party as well as the precarious economy. In the 1990s Ken Clarke was equally ubiquitous. Even if he did not dress up quite so often, he was happy to be interviewed on every subject from jazz to John Major's fragility.

In some ways the Osborne/Brown technique is highly effective, conferring on the elusive public figures a gravitas that ubiquity always undermines. Even though Osborne is not an economist and his policies are at best unproven, I detect a degree of awe when he is interviewed, or at least a tendency for soft questioning. This is a triumph for a young politician without previous experience in government. At his peak the same applied to Brown. The public appearances were so rare they were an event in themselves. Interviewers never laid a glove on him.

Yet the aura of distance comes at a price. The elusiveness dehumanises in the era of eternal communication. As I wrote last week when reflecting on the current shortage of political characters, Gerald Kaufman once told me Harold Wilson "learnt" to have a sense of humour. Osborne has a natural wit and rarely uses it in public. Recently the actor, James Corden, was on Andrew Marr's show with the Chancellor. Later, Corden hailed Osborne for his sense of humour. He was being sincere and meant it as a compliment. Osborne's humour is rarely on show. The same applied to Brown. The long-serving Labour Chancellor learnt not to have a sense of humour. Privately he had a sense of the ridiculous. It was one of the bonds with Blair in the early days of their friendship, an intimate relationship that is now so hard to comprehend. Blair was wisely, funny in public too. Wit is a weapon and should be used by any political figure that possesses it, even one that is also armed with contentious economic policies.

Although Osborne limits media appearances, he is obsessed with the media, another echo with Brown. Again, the extreme interest from two embryonic journalists can be simultaneously productive and dangerous. In his early years as Chancellor Brown secured headlines to die for. But too often the fingerprints of his entourage were easily identifiable so that Brown became the main victim of media exercises aimed at boosting his image. The classic was an early biography by the journalist, Paul Routledge, in which the case for Brown and against Blair was made with zeal. The sources were comically obvious and a book highly favourable to Brown did him immense harm.

There has been no such extreme example in the case of the less personally ambitious Osborne (in the sense that no one could be more personally ambitious than Brown after 1994), but most weeks I read columns or hear analysis in which Osborne is so obviously the source. Like Brown this can work for him. He has captured the idea that Britain's economic woes are the fault of the last government even though every equivalent country in the world is struggling with the same financial crisis. The absurdity of his case highlights the brilliance of the media manipulation, although easier to pull off in a media largely aching to agree with the analysis.

Osborne's conflicting skills and qualities were on show during his peak time interview on the BBC's Today programme yesterday. He made a mistake in attacking the BBC throughout. The imagined bias of the BBC might attract sympathy when he has coffee with some Tory columnists, but listeners worried about the lack of growth will note a very early attempt at finding scapegoats. Yet Osborne also displayed empathic tonal range, and on the substance of this silly debate about whether he has a plan B he emphasised the flexibility built in to plan A. The debate is silly because no Chancellor can acknowledge an alternative route in advance.

When Margaret Thatcher announced the lady was not for turning she had already discreetly turned. I would not be surprised if circumstances forced Osborne to do the same while insisting he is on course. The Chancellor is in danger of becoming more interesting soon.

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