George Osborne, the gambler let loose in the Treasury
As I write, I have in front of me a toy monkey with a yellow face, red hair, green ears, a blue nose, and rings round its orange tail. The man who's now Chancellor of the Exchequer hurled it at me five years ago, accompanied by a half-embarrassed, single-worded cackle: "Congratulations!"
It's a week today since George Osborne's first budget. So it's also a good time - since we know more about him, after its contents, than we did before - to look at him again. What motivates the man who's the youngest Chancellor since Randolph Churchill? What does he want to achieve? What does he believe?
At first glance, George Osborne ought not to work - as a top-flight politician, that is. He is, for a senior Cabinet member, preposterously young. He's no real working experience outside politics. His voice tends to squeak. He's a baronet-to-be: a disadvantage in this demotic, democratic age. Those inextinguishable Bullingdon photos are a reminder of his - let's whisper the next word - privileged past.
I was a member of Osborne's Shadow Treasury team for almost two years, doubling up as Shadow Minister for Childcare. That's about eighteen months worth of Shadow Ministerial meetings, team meetings, monthly Commons oral questions, pre-budget reports (two of them), budgets (ditto) and finance bills (ditto).
And I knew him before working for him, and watching him float each week - during those first years after David Cameron's smash-and-grab raid on the leadership - from Treasury meeting to the Leader's Office, to work in his second job as Cameron's right-hand man. This was a role he first exercised for William Hague, which was when I first ran across him.
In those days, his melancholy tasks included ringing up the Daily Telegraph comment desk, and offering pieces by the Opposition Leader. In 2001 - more happily - he was elected to the Commons, as I was. Somewhere between the two dates, I was at his wedding - a packed, big-scale, extrovert affair. The toy was a gift to celebrate the birth of my son, Daniel. At home, we call the monkey - unsurprisingly - George.
Such are my qualifications for writing fifteen observations about Osborne - not perfect, but not all that bad, either. Here we go: six points that need a bit of elaboration; others that sometimes need less.
1) He's supremely self-confident. Osborne's one of the two most self-assured people I've run across (the other being Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph columnist and Greatest Living Englishman). He certainly needed all the confidence he could find when I first joined his team. For he was cast as a pipsqueak David squaring up to an all-conquering Goliath.
Gordon Brown was at the height of his powers. The economy was booming. Some believed the Chancellor's own boast - that he'd abolished boom and bust. He'd seen off Ken Clarke, Peter Lilley, Francis Maude, Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as Shadow Chancellors.
And there, in the blue corner, was Osborne - a very young man with no record in Government. But in my experience, he doesn't do worry, anxiety, self-doubt. Now and again, the odds we were up against would stir that braying laugh. But he always believed Brown was beatable - a self-tortured giant whose long quarrel with Tony Blair would help first weaken and then topple Labour (as proved to be the case).
2) He cares, first and foremost, about winning. Osborne's first political job was as Douglas Hogg's special adviser, during the BSE crisis. (Remember that hat?) In political terms, Hogg was battered by events. Osborne then moved on to be William Hague's Political Secretary. The Party was humiliated in the 2001 election.
With Cameron, Boris and I, he helped prepare Iain Duncan Smith for PMQs. Duncan Smith was ousted. He then moved on to assist Michael Howard. Howard lost the 2005 election. These bare facts help explain Osborne's extraordinary focus on winning: to him, as I've written before, ideas have a function - to hold open the door to office. If they don't do so, they're of little interest.
Of the four Shadow Cabinet members I served under (David Willetts, Eric Pickles and Caroline Spelman were the other three) he ran the most focused meetings. If the conversation drifted to process rather politics, he'd close it down rapidly. I may be wrong, but I thought that he'd a tendency to do this with Philip Hammond, who succeeded Theresa Villiers as Shadow Chief Secretary.
3) None the less, he's strong instincts - as an economic and social liberal. To say that, for Osborne, ideas - and probably convictions - are second to winning doesn't mean that he has none. By background, he's an urban liberal. His family home was "not conservative". His father is a "classic old liberal". His mother was "of the liberal left".
On the basis of what I've seen and what he's said, I suspect that Osborne gravitated towards centre-right politics because, well, that's kind of where his upbringing pointed to - his parents, remember, are business people (his father being one half of Osborne and Little, the wallpaper designers) - and where the centre of gravity of his social circle was.
Like Cameron, he didn't do student politics at Oxford (as an ex-student politician, I think that's no bad thing), but co-edited the University magazine. I'm surprised that he didn't break though in journalism after leaving. My best guess is that he's come round to believing economic liberalism - in the small state - because it marries up with his social liberalism, which runs deep.
4) There's substantial voting evidence for Osborne's social liberalism. They Work For You doesn't tell you everything you need to know about a politician. But since there are often free votes on social and moral issues, which lobby a politician goes into on these occasions says much about his outlook, his values.
Have a look at some of Osborne's here. In 2002, he voted with the whip against gay adoption. As a new MP, he wouldn't have wanted to antagonise the powers-that-be or undermine the position of Duncan Smith. But in the main vote a year later on Section 28 - which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools - he went through the lobbies to scrap it.
From then on, he supported the liberal ticket down the line - on civil partnerships, on the Equality Act regulations (which, for example, made it illegal for Christian bed and breakfast owners to turn away gay couples), on fertility treatment requiring both a father and a mother, on lowering the abortion limit.
4) He recognises that ideas are important in politics. I wrote earlier that ideas are of little interest to Osborne if they've no utility. But part of his strength as a politician is that he recognises that, much of the time, they do. Osborne brought Michael Forsyth's Tax Commission into being precisely because he recognised, five years out from an election in 2005, that Brown's ideas needed to be challenged.
He probably didn't think the consequences through fully. In political terms, Forsyth's report - which should act as a lodestar for this Government - became a benchmark against which Osborne's pronouncements were set. "No more Commissions!" I remember him saying, rather grimly, after one tangle over tax policy.
But he was happy to make time for ideas to be put on the table - to be inspected, probed, kicked around a bit to see if they'd stand up to scrutiny. His main team meeting was on Mondays, but he ran a second on Tuesdays for his Shadow Ministers only, precisely for this purpose. My hunch is that he grew up knocking ideas around in a lively, sparky, liberal home, and that the habit stuck.
5) He's a risk taker. With Cameron, Osborne's usually labelled as one half of a modernising duo at the top of the Party - who, with Steve Hilton and a small coterie, see Philip Gould's account of how Tony Blair built New Labour ("The Unfinished Revolution") as their Bible, and with their own Party are seeking to replicate what he did.
One of core convictions of early modernisation was: stick with it, whatever the pressure. Make your own Clause Four moment. Find a way of taking on your own Party. It says a lot about Osborne that when, in the autumn of 2007, this view clearly wasn't delivering, he broke with it, leaving behind him a new name for those that wouldn't - the über-modernisers.
He tore up the script, announced inheritance tax and stamp duty cuts to the Conservative Conference, won huge cheers, dramatically reversed the Party's poll ratings, and frightened Brown off calling an election. He pulled off much the same trick with national insurance in the election.
6) He's the best political tactician the Party's got. There's admittedly a bit of a shortage of competition. Furthermore, he must share the blame for the Conservative failure to win a majority. Tim and I probed at the campaign in detail in "Falling Short", and fingered in particular the blunder of letting Clegg in to the TV debates, and failing to poll the "Big Society" message.
That said, Osborne's tax initiatives, as outlined above, twice got the Party out of a jam. The Big Society was Hilton's baby, not Osborne's. And the election campaign got sharper and meaner after the latter arrived: the Brown "Let me do it again" posters at last took the fight to Labour. The failure to establish a clear chain of command - to install an equivalent of Lynton Crosby in the 2005 campaign - was Cameron's fault, not Osborne's.
Tactics and risks run naturally together. The same animal spirits that lured Osborne on to Deripaska's yacht and into the Bullingdon Club, or to write this extraordinary attack on his colleagues' cupidity and junketing (which would have ended the career of a less gifted politician) surely fired him up to turn modernising orthodoxy on its head in 2007, and risk the election campaign on an NI cut. I can't help but imagine Osborne as a powdered, bewigged Pimpernel, staking all on the Knave of Diamonds coming up trumps in some candle-lit, fume-ridden, eighteenth-century hellhole.
7) He looks after his own. As I've written previously, he's kept his Shadow Treasury team more or less intact while others were scattered to the four winds. Mark Hoban and David Gauke are in the Treasury. Justine Greening is back in the team. Greg Hands, moved to make way for her, is Osborne's PPS. Former aides, such as Matt Hancock and Claire Perry, are now in Parliament, and it will be worth keeping an eye on both.
8) He's an operator. He's skilled at schmoozing backbenchers. He's keen to look after Ministers. (During the last Parliament, when it was announced that Ministerial cars were to be scaled back, he quietly let it be known that he'd saved some of them.) He's clearly charmed the "gang of four" former Tory Chancellors - Howe, Lawson, Lamont and Clarke - and kept them onside. He distanced himself from Cameron's move to crush the '22 - a very rare instance of the one moving away from the other.
9) To date, he's been uncompromising in personal matters. Prominent privately-educated Conservative Cabinet Ministers are a target for Labour politicians (who, like Ed Balls, are often privately-educated themselves). Some respond by playing down their background, or sending their children to state schools, or pretending a close interest in football.
Osborne's done none of the above. Some say that in this respect, he's like Mandelson - more careful of others' image than his own. I think, rather, that he and his author wife, Frances, have taken a decision to live as they want, not as others demand.
10) He's been lucky so far. If he'd been sent to, say, health or education, he'd have been probed about the healthcare he gets or where his children go to school. Instead, he's been following Treasury or Pensions matters, in one guise or another, since 2003 - briefs in which one's somehow expected to look and sound like a Tory. It's been a fortunate break for him.
11) He's a young man's zest for politics. Politics has speeded up. The Party's on its fifth leader in less than 20 years. Politicians can get burnt out. But despite the Party's setbacks, Osborne, when I worked with him, radiated an unquenchable enthusiasm for "the game". "Just imagine," he said to me as his team waiting for its first Treasury Questions, lowering his gaze to the Despatch Box. "Gladstone…Disraeli... Goodman." I suspect he was being arch (no: I know he was), but mingled with the ribbing was a love of Westminster, of its high ideals as well as low politics.
12) He identifies with the United States. Osborne's been labelled a neo-con. He certainly had easy relations with the Bush administration. On a trivial note, I remember him brandishing, with that child-like glee characteristic of him, a paper knife given to him as a gift by Dick Cheney. On a more serious one, he went in to bat for the war in Iraq as late as 2004: "there are few voices to be heard putting the other view: that the terrorists pose a fundamental threat to our way of life, that fight them we must, that Iraq was part of that fight and that we are winning".
But lots of people are described as neo-cons on scant evidence (often without any understanding of the term). It would be more accurate to say that Osborne's an affection for the United States, perhaps drawn from his time there during his early twenties. He's also, in my experience, strongly pro-Israel: I remember him cheering Louise Ellman, a Labour MP, when she defended the killing of Sheikh Yasin in the Commons.
13) He was the best of the "gang of four" that helped prepare Opposition Leaders for Prime Minister's Questions. Cameron, who'd helped prepare John Major for Prime Minister's Questions, was first-class, scribbling away with furrowed brow before producing effective lines of attacks. I wasn't much kop. Boris was...well, he was Boris. Osborne was immensely skilled at the ritual ju-jitsu of attack lines, rebuttals and put-downs. "I know," he said to Michael Howard, snapping his fingers. "Try this on Blair: 'This grammar school boy isn't going to take any lessons from that public school boy' ". So a public school boy produced the line about the grammar school boy who said...
14) He's charming - but ruthless. The charm is well attested to. The ruthlessness I thought I glimpsed in dozens of asides and a certain glint in the eye. He showed self-knowledge and detachment in not contesting the leadership in 2005 (though he considered it: read Francis Elliott on the matter). Top politicians must possess a cold streak, I'm afraid. I rather agree with the civil servant who, contemplating the woes of John Major's "Cabinet of chums", mused thoughtfully: "I like my Prime Ministers to be rather inhumane".
15) And last... Talking of 10 Downing Street…yes, I imagine he wants the Premiership, because (nearly) every politician does. But, for the moment, he wants the world to know that he's come of age, and put away childish things. The non-smile in Downing Street, as he held the budget box aloft, sent that signal and said it all.
In Opposition, Cameron should arguably have let Osborne get on with political strategy by making him Party Chairman and appointing Ken Clarke Shadow Chancellor. The Party was certainly unbalanced by having two broadly similar figures at the top. In Government, Clarke would certainly be a more genial, avuncular salesman for the reductions in spending to come.
But I wonder if Clarke would have tried to balance the books in a single term. Or produce a political plan to roll back the frontiers of the state by scaling back the child tax credit, offering tax cuts rather than state subsidies to Labour's heartland areas, letting workers run the services they use or buy shares in nationalised banks.
OK, Osborne still lacks experience. But now that he's gaining it as a real Chancellor, this somehow matters rather less. Sure, the voice can still shrill up an octave. But he held his own in the Chancellors' election debate, and I can't remember him giving a bad performance in the Commons or fluffing a Conference speech.
No, the budget wasn't perfect (the Coalition Agreement offered the Government a golden opportunity to drop the health spending commitment), but it was necessary, and had a clear stategic goal - to shrink the size of the state. His enemies - not all of whom are in other parties - half-expected, half-hoped that it would send him crashing from the high wire. It hasn't, at least yet.
Brown's enforcers spent much of the last Parliament trying to make a monkey out of him. Now he's in office and they're out of it. By the way, trying typing the words "Osborne", "budget" and "gamble" into a search engine. Quite a few entries, aren't there? Now ask yourself: was the Budget out of character?