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George Osborne is NOT the problem

By Tim Montgomerie
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Iain Martin was once the loneliest pundit on Fleet Street - at least the loneliest centre right pundit. In opposition he called for George Osborne to be replaced as Shadow Chancellor. It was a brave call and I'm not sure his relations with the man who eventually became Chancellor ever quite recovered. Today Iain Martin isn't so lonely. Marginally more Tory members are dissatisfied with Mr Osborne's performance than are satisfied. Guido reports that "Osborne is the biggest drag on the ticket in Downing Street’s private polling". Only 3% of voters think he'd make a better leader than Cameron (59% think he'd be worse). On Saturday the Express' Patrick O'Flynn called for Mr Osborne to be sacked or at least moved. Today, from the pages of a newspaper that has been relentlessly anti-Osborne for some time, Trevor Kavanagh says Cameron is finished if he doesn't replace Osborne with Hague.

George Osborne has had a terrible few months and much of it of his own making. ConHome has argued for some time that he simply does too much - he's a part-time Chancellor during a full-time crisis. The second big problem is that he has an austerity policy but no adequate competitiveness or growth policy. Although I'm not unsympathetic to Mr Osborne's critics, therefore, I'm not in agreement with them on the question of reshuffling him. Here are my reasons...

Deficit credibility: First of all, as Jonathan Aitken reminded us on Friday in the context of Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives, the main purpose of reshuffles is to change policy not personnel. If Osborne is moved international markets will not unreasonably see it in those terms. They won't think he's been moved because of the pasty tax u-turn but because the Coalition might be reconsidering its deficit policy. Keeping George Osborne at Number 11 Downing Street is the clearest possible signal that the Coalition isn't backing away from its central, defining purpose. Deficit reduction is imperilled by the lack of growth but it's been cut by a quarter. That's a good start. 

Osborne's voice of sanity on key issues: Second, Osborne is on the correct and Right side of some of the most important arguments in the Government. He wants a more ambitious airports policy. He's pushing back on expensive climate change thinking. He's backing Gove on technical colleges. He and IDS now have a strong relationship and Number 11 is backing the universal credit policy. In the argument on 40p or 45p the Chancellor, as ConHome revealed, made the 'if-it-is-to-be-done-it-should-be-done-properly' case - but sadly lost. I also give him credit for leading the attack on Ed Balls. Who else is doing it? The centre right press have gone strangely silent about Ballsonomics.

The Coalition, not Osborne, explains the growth timidity: Third, while Osborne may have been slow to argue for a growth strategy it's not his fault that we don't have one that is proportionate to the challenges. Cameron and Clegg blocked the cut to 40p. Huhne blocked sensible energy policies. Justine Greening blocks a third runway at Heathrow. Cable et al blocked Beecroft. The economic policy many want won't happen if Osborne moves. There's actually good reason to think the worst elements in the Coalition might be emboldened if he was. I have images of Lord Oakeshott dancing a little jig.

The lack of alternative: Fourth - who would replace him? Philip Hammond is beginning to get on top of the MoD brief. Is this the time for another merry-go-round for Defence? Hague loves being Foreign Secretary and is good at the job. Very good (although he could be bolder with the part of his EU brief). Michael Fallon would be my gun-to-the-head choice but it would be a massive promotion for a man who isn't even a minister at present. Some would love to see Davis or Redwood become Chancellor. This overlooks the fact that the PM needs someone in that brief who he completely knows (and trusts). The bottom line is that I really don't believe that Cameron wants to change the man who he has relied on so much over the last seven years. A trusting relationship between the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor is worth a great deal and this administration has one.

A final thought. Let's get real. The Coalition is not in trouble because of Osborne. His ratings are poor but Nigel Lawson was never popular. Conservatives adore Lord Lawson today (and it's great to see him appointed to the Tyrie Committee) but he was seen as an overweight ideologue by many at the time. People choose governments on the basis of the party leader, their own economic well-being and the qualities of the alternative. Osborne's policies matter and those policies are as much the Coalition's as they are his. Move Osborne and the Government gains little but, more seriously, it risks communicating weaknesses. Osborne - and the Coalition - deserve more time.


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