Is it time for the Tories to ditch George Osborne?

None of our biz, of course, but that shouldn’t stop us poking our big yellow beak in, should it?

In a time of headlines like London shares slump is worst for 21 years, Panic selling piles pressure on G7 leaders and Councils trapped in £1bn black hole (and that’s just today’s), the old grandees of economics are increasingly on a media roll. These are people who can interpret moment-by-moment macro-economic unravelling with a nimbleness and acuity that can’t be faked with slick presentation and a good researcher. Suppose, for example, HSBC went into receivership in the middle of Newsnight? You can’t just get on your Blackberry and ask for three paragraphs and a killer metaphor involving rooves and sunshine with Jeremy Paxman glaring at you. Big serious suits containing big serious people fill (often literally) our screens every evening.

In the midst of this grim, broad-shouldered throng, George Osborne increasingly resembles the summer placement student. Allowed to play with his inheritance tax spreadsheet in happy times, when actual problems arise he has to be gently but quickly pushed out of the way where he can’t do any harm, either to the debate or to the Conservative party. Look at the three most recent economy-related news items on the Tory website:

  • an attack on the government for failing to help local authorities harmed by the collapse of Icesave (from Eric Pickles)
  • an attack on the government because there are apparently a hundred countries better prepared for the slowdown than the UK (from Philip Hammond)
  • a link to a grandstanding state-we’re-in Torygraph piece on the future of the UK economy from… David Cameron (“where’s osborne he should be writing in, not DC [sic]” poses one commenter; “I would like to vote conservative again but will I vote for you on present performance and whilst your sidekick might be in charge of the money? A definite non!” says another)

Tuesday’s Newsnight saw a particularly jowelly assemblage, as befitting the eve of the Chancellor’s rescue package announcement: Paul Mason, the BBC economics editor, Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General, Vince Cable and… Ken Clarke, who could be seen wobbling along in agreement with Vince on a couple of occasions. Recent Osborne media appearances I’m aware of consist of a Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark in which she asked some fairly daft and muddled questions and he still managed to come off worst, and that Today programme interview in which Evan Davies asked him one very simple question:

“Do you know as much about economics as Vince Cable, George?”

And answer came there none, of any coherence. He has, at least, the good sense not to make such claims for himself.

So if even Osborne admits his own inferiority, and if his contribution to public debate in the eye of the financial storm is limited to unjamming the photocopier and doing the Starbucks run (come to think of it, do we have an ID on the man who delivered Darling’s £245 curry?), doesn’t that make him something of a liability to the Glorious Conservative Future™? Something of a kazoo in the soaring orchestration of the Triumph of Dave?

Some party affiliates apparently think so. A few weeks ago Tory echo chamber the Coffee House Blog*  ran a post** entitled “Cameron shouldn’t be so complacent about the quality of his top team” which delicately suggested that a reshuffle might be no bad thing, just a little teensy one, to get rid of a bit of dead wood. The comments avoided saying the unsayable even more exquisitely, calling for Ken Clarke to be brought back to, er, well, you know *COUGH* George *COUGH* Osborne *COUGH*

Cameron has a real problem here. He allowed Osborne to stay in post on assuming the leadership and has built him up very publicly as a right-hand man. I can see why – nothing more grateful and loyal than an over-promoted number two. It was excellent politics because it plastered another young, presentable, uncontaminated face across the Tory brand, but not one that could outshine Cameron. Ken Clarke would score poorly on both these criteria, John Redwood would throw the detoxification process into reverse gear at a stroke, and both would irredeemably alienate one-or-other wing of the party over Europe. The appointment of a clever unknown would be one hell of a gamble in the current climate and suggest that (a) the Tories aren’t taking the current crisis seriously (unfair) and (b) everything the Tories have pronounced up to now on matters economic has been ill-thought-out horsepiss (fair).

So in answer to my own question: no, it isn’t time. Yet. But after the last couple of weeks we all know how rapidly events can shift. My guess is that Cameron is wincing his way through the current crisis, burying his head in a cushion every time George goes on TV, and he’s planning the reshuffle.  He hasn’t spent all this time and effort decontaminating the Tory brand to have his plans trashed by some oily twerp who hides his weekly treasury briefings down the back of the sofa, old mate or not. He can’t afford to go into a General Election side-by-side with a man whose claim to competence is that he “talks to people about the economy a lot”. George Osborne, you are the weakest link. And you read it here first. Goodbye.

* Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the Coffee House Blog because it’s a Tory barf box. I hate it because a few months ago I won a Coffee House Blog T-shirt absolutely fair and square, having had my question chosen for a Q&A post with Nick Clegg, and I emailed merrily off to Peter Hoskin as instructed saying ooh, a t-shirt, isn’t that fun, thanks ever so much, here’s my address, la la la and I heard NOTHING! Do not trust these Tory-echo-barf people. They are no respecters of other people’s rightfully owned T-shirts.

** Which I only found again after a great deal of trawling. Searching the Spectator website for “Cameron complacent” yielded 473 hits.

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  • Hague, gravitas? Hahaha.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 10th Oct '08 - 8:34pm

    The biggest mystery about George Osborne is why so many people are incapable of spelling his name right …

  • Elizabeth Patterson 10th Oct '08 - 8:54pm

    Your rhetorical question was a good washing line on which to hang out an amusing set of Osbourne’s shortcomings; but don’t for goodness sake encourage the tories to ditch him because he serves as a good contrast to our front bench economists, any of whom would be more convincing.
    We can be pleased to have Vince, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Susan Kramer to speak for us and they do make Os look like the school prefect; his shadow Treasury Secretary looks more grown-up.

  • I don’t think Cameron can sack Osbourne – he knows where the skeletons are buried (or at least has photographic evidence)

  • Alix Mortimer 10th Oct '08 - 10:42pm

    Oops! Thanks, now corrected. We don’t want the poor fellow being misspelled on top of everything else…

  • OK, now can you correct Ken Clarke, please?

    (Double whammy!)

  • Alix Mortimer 11th Oct '08 - 12:09pm

    Arr, go on then, I will. As a special treate.

  • Terry Gilbert 13th Oct '08 - 5:11pm

    As someone married to an Osborn (no e, no u) may I concur heartily with CCF on her behalf! (They are all descended from Vikings, you know….)

  • I doubt if Ken Clarke wants the grind; and who else does Cameron have? He is sticking to the imp he knows, for fear of something worse.

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