Conservative Diary

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George V The Dragon

Screen shot 2010-04-06 at 14.50.54 Lord Mandelson deigned recently to let it be known that he will be Labour's "chief election strategist".  (Not much of a role, then, for Douglas Alexander, the party's "election co-ordinator".)  We knew already that Mandelson's Conservative opposite number will be George Osborne.  Prepare, therefore, for a rush of commentary claiming that -

Much of what one does aims to out-fox the other.  For example, public spending in 2010 will be £655 billion.  Osborne has announced that he will cut this total by £6.5 billion.  This doesn't mean that he's given up on curbing spending growth: bigger reductions will come in the second and third years of a Conservative Government.  But it does mean that Mandelson's anti-Conservative case - that Tory "cuts" will put recovery at risk - has nowhere to go.  After all, a 1% cut in spending growth couldn't possibly de-rail economic recovery.

For both, the election will be a grudge match.  It would be misleading to say that Osborne and Mandelson are ancient foes.  Osborne's real long-term opponent is Brown, who he man-marked as Shadow Chancellor for two years (thereby becoming the only Conservative holder of the post to outlast him) and tackled previously as Shadow Chief Secretary and as a Shadow Treasury Minister.  But "Yachtgate" transformed what seems to have been a beautiful friendship - based on Mandelson privately running Brown down and Osborne egging him on - into a bloody vendetta.  The election must leave one man or the other holed beneath the water line.

The two are dopplegangers. Both had well-connected upbringings, have devoted most of their working lives to their respective political parties, are political strategists adept at crafting messages and staying remorselessly on them, like mixing with the rich and famous, enjoy taking risks (Mandelson's Cabinet return; Osborne's tax announcements), and have devoted their careers to someone else - sometimes at the expense of their own short-term interests.  (First Blair and then Brown in Mandelson's case; Cameron in Osborne's.)


Most of this is accurate enough, but the differences between the two are at least as interesting as the similarities -

The Cameron/Osborne relationship is more grown up than Brown/Mandelson.  "I went over to see Gordon in his office," a diarist wrote in May 2001.  "He had a pile of papers and had written 'Who will silence Mandelson?'…I said I was fed up being expected to sort out all these feuds and personality clashes."  The diarist in question was none other than that other election campaign retread, Alistair Campbell.  And this is one of the entries that the old spinmaster didn't excise to spare his party's blushes.  The relationships of the New Labour elite, as recorded even in their own words, have an adolescent tang.  Cameron Towers are cooler and calmer.

To date, Mandelson's been a winner, Osborne a loserMandelson helped craft "Kinnock, the movie" in 1987.  Admittedly, Labour were thrashed in that election.  But the venture was one of the party's few admired gambits, and Mandelson was kept out of the 1992 debacle.  He went on to help craft Labour's 1997 and 2001 landslides.  Osborne, by contrast, worked in Downing Street before the first Blair landslide, was William Hague's Political Secretary during the run-up to the second Blair landslide, and was Shadow Chief Secretary immediately before Labour's third victory.  This history will rankle - and Osborne will be the hungrier boxer of the two during the weeks to come.

Osborne has a sharper eye for policyTo the Shadow Chancellor as to the Business Secretary, policy must always serve a political purpose.  But the former grasps better the detail of proposals and their place in a narrative.  The inheritance tax and stamp duty plans Osborne announced in 2007 weren't just well-timed, and didn't just help block an election which Brown might have won.  They helped to tell a story of passing wealth down the generations, since younger people want to get a foot on the housing ladder and older people want to pass on their earnings to their children.  The recent NIC cut proposal told a story, too - of a party that wants to cut the tax burden for a purpose: to re-power the engines of growth.  Mandelson has the same ability to describe a big picture, but not the same skill with bold brush-strokes.

Paul Goodman


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