George Osborne: on growth and growing up

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We shall return in due course to the question of Mr Osborne’s observations on onanism, but  for the moment the issue is what business did GQ magazine have in making the Chancellor of the Exchequer their “politician of the year”?

There are others more obviously worthy of the accolade. Tom Watson MP, for example, must be a strong contender. Through his stakhanovite pursuit of the phone hackers, he has done more than anyone in the country, with the exception of James Murdoch, to bring down ruination upon the House of Rupe, and even if you are among the pariahs who don’t applaud the outcome, you can still admire the application . A late entrant into the lists might be Evan Harris, whose effectiveness in orchestrating opposition to Mr Lansley’s health reforms is directly measurable in the rude names he is being called by the Tories.  Dr Harris, they note bitterly, isn’t even a Lib Dem MP anymore (So what? Since when has sitting in the yellow corner of the green benches been the sine qua non of political supremacy?) yet he has managed to overcome this disability to make himself a considerable obstacle on the path that leads to GP commissioning, or whatever it is that Mr Lansley’s utopian destination is called these days.  Since one is statistically more likely to win the lottery than become a Lib Dem MP, Dr Harris’ example of influence well-directed offers hope for us all.  From the Conservative side meanwhile, Michael Gove, after a shaky start, has used his year well to push forward the free school initiative, a refreshing and radical policy that ought to make even the most grumpy Tory hum a little tune.

My own vote for politician of the year, however, goes to Nick Clegg.  True he leads a party whose approval rating is worse than anthrax, and, should he ever flee into political exile, he would find that even Niger has standards to maintain, yet he has secured his position in the only place that matters: the heart of David Cameron.  The rout of May seems long ago now. When Clegg said that he would use those defeats to be even more bolshy and demanding in the Liberal Democrat cause, he was good to his word. Clegg’s influence may be exaggerated by those Conservatives who do his image no end of favours by complaining about it so ad infinitium, but there is no doubt that he has played a weak hand well.  When Cameron was asked the Dorries question about showing Clegg who was boss, the embarrassing little sketch he acted out in reply finished up with a generous pat upon Mr Clegg’s shoulder.  What did that say about who was the boss?

Mr Osborne’s own claim to political gold rests, presumably, on the job he has done with the economy, for how else are we supposed to judge the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Except that the job he has done with the economy is, at the time of writing, very much far from done. It is conventional wisdom that if the Osborne recovery comes through, then the Tories will walk the next election, and even the wily Mr Clegg will be banished from influence. At that time we might want to hang a gong around Osborne’s neck, and listen to another of his dirty jokes. For the moment meanwhile  it is worth observing that confidence in Mr Osborne’s policies is more on the wane than the wax.

Even Madame Lagarde, the head of the IMF, who it seems to me harbours the same sort of sparkle-eyed interest in Mr Osborne that Hilary Clinton was once supposed to feel for David Miliband, has started to say that the course might need to be adjusted. It was rather touching really that the Treasury should make such a thing of Madame Lagarde’s description of the deficit-reduction programme as “appropriate” – much as a small child might come back from pony club proudly bearing a rosette for eighth place.  As the economy itself continues to lollop along, some sort of change in emphasis, if not in direction, seems inevitable.  There is much talk of plan A+ and yesterday’s papers were full of stories of how Mr Osborne is energetically bullying his colleagues for ideas for economic growth.  The trouble is that we have been here before. Between the Autumn spending review last year and the March Budget we were told continuously that the new priority was growth. The Budget itself, supposedly focused on this great endeavour, turned out to be as instantly forgettable as a half a dozen of Gordon Brown’s efforts combined.

Madame Lagarde is not the only older woman on the Chancellor’s tail. The aforementioned Mrs Dorries also assailed him for his off-colour comments when picking up  the GQ award. How shocked she really was I have no idea. There seems to be an informal rota system operating where one female Tory MP at a time must continuously be in the public eye and Mrs Dorries, having taken over the shift from Louise Mensch, might have made the remark only for the purposes of fulfilling her remit. More striking from where I was sitting was that David Mitchell, who was hosting the GQ awards, complained that the Chancellor’s comments had lowered the tone of the evening. When the progenitor of Peep Show thinks you have acted in bad taste, it really is time to be sacking your scriptwriters.

The obvious point to make, of course, is that it is impossible to imagine say Rab Butler or Nigel Lawson, or even Alastair Darling, taking to the podium to muse on the careless masturbatory habits of the teenage generation (I am tempted to extend the parallel all the way back to Gladstone, though it would be nice to think of the old boy, in comparable circumstances, making a nudge nudge reference to saving a fallen woman for himself, leaving Disraeli, the David Mitchell of his day, to harrumph in slightly jealous irritation).  That Mr Osborne’s remarks were unworthy of the office he holds is a truth as palpable as to express it is pompous. Judging by its reaction, even the audience on the night – who I assume was not made up of bishops’ wives and army colonels – was unimpressed.  It may have been a joke that was, to paraphrase the IMF, “inappropriate”, but more interesting is what it says about Mr Osborne.

When Mr Osborne was the shadow chancellor, he was not taken very seriously, at least not as the shadow chancellor. He was thought to be a sharp political strategist – which is another way of saying that he liked playing at politics – but notes and nods were regularly said to be circulating in the City and elsewhere to the effect that his grasp of economics and business was less than masterful. Alistair Darling in his memoirs cruelly exposes how, at every point of the unfolding economic crisis of 2007 and 2008, Mr Osborne’s response was either lightweight or opportunistic, or frequently both.  Even allowing for the fact that Mr Darling remains a practising political opponent of Mr Osborne, these jibes ring true. Adept as he was and is at the paintballing side of political larking about, Mr Osborne is no financial colossus.

The Chancellor’s achievement since taking office, such as it is, is to have driven this feeling about him into the background. At some point in his days as the then opposition’s master strategist he decided that the smart thing for Tory election prospects would be to assault the deficit, and to damn Labour as the insane debt-raisers who nearly buried Britain, and he has stuck to that plan with a robotic determination that is in its way impressive.  For as long as he was able to make it appear that the only economic policy Britain needed was one to eliminate the deficit, Mr Osborne, fighting a battle whose terms he had been able to dictate, commanded the field. In the process, he was able to banish any other thoughts about the weaknesses in his make-up.

To repeat, this has been a political, not an economic, achievement, and perhaps GQ would argue that is reason enough to hand Mr Osborne their award. The problem, however, is that as the global economic situation worsens, it is becoming clear that dealing with debt is only part of what needs to be done, and not the whole answer.  If we wish to assess the Chancellor’s mettle, we would be better off doing so by seeing what sort of response he can muster on the all important questions of economic growth and jobs. Admittedly he is not helped by having as a partner a Business Secretary who is no more useful to a productive economy than a squashed can of Coca Cola, but Mr Osborne’s own record on this front so far is hardly convincing either.  He still has everything to prove. He has to show us that he is capable of a growth strategy that includes, though is not limited to, growing up.

Wednesday 7th September

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Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, is sometimes likened, chiefly by her enemies it must be said, to Edwina Currie, one of those many Tories wiped out by the political meteor of May 1997.  The comparison does not carry with it any predictive DNA. It does not mean that Mrs Dorries will one day end up as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing or the author of several eyebrow-raising Westminster sagas or in bed with the prime minister.  Particularly not the last now, one imagines, after Mr Cameron connived in the humiliation of his backbencher in a scene that was every bit as portentuous as it was juvenile.

The scene was Prime Minister’s Questions  where Mrs Dorries used her chance to pitch one at the PM to ask when he was going to show the deputy prime minister who is boss.  Mrs Currie, a former junior minister, was once defended by her then departmental chief, Norman Fowler, as someone who says what other people are thinking, and Mrs Dorries would seem to have inherited that knack. Those Conservative MPs who are not thinking that it is time Mr Cameron stood up to Nick Clegg are thinking that it is time he shoved the deputy prime minister’s head down the toilet pan and pulled the chain. There must, they reason, be some upside to that Eton training.

It was therefore a good question, but Mrs Dorries – or Mad Nad as she is sometimes known – may reflect that it wasn’t a particularly opportune moment for her to be asking it. For the last few days she has been engaged in an energetic campaign to amend the law on abortion so that the purveyors of these particularly beastly operations are barred from advising women whether or not to have one.  There may well be some quiet merit in this proposal, but the British political establishment likes to think that its failure to obsess about abortion is one of the few things that still sets it culturally above America. Mrs Dorries, by harping on about the subject, threatens that delicate status quo and so when she rose to ask her question she was met with the sort of embarrassment across the House that inflicts a family gathering just before a drunken uncle gets up to tell a dirty joke.

The question was also unlikely to be given the attention it deserved, because it spoke to some personal needle between Mrs Dorries and Mr Cameron. The prime minister was initially thought to be in favour the Dorries amendment, but then let the Polly Toynbee side of his character win out and changed his mind. This did not endear him to Mrs Dorries, nor she to him after she called the volte face “gutless”. She suspects moreover that the inner Toynbee in Mr Cameron was released by the outer Clegg, who likes to poke the prime minister in various liberal directions, just for the pleasure of showing his backbenchers that he can.  It has been reported that the prime minister chose to put the stability of his coalition ahead of the rights of the unborn child which, as anti-abortion campaigners would no doubt observe, is, after all, where most other considerations reside.

Less attentive to the significance of the issue for his backbenchers than to the person who was raising it, Mr Cameron flushed and blushed and then embarked upon an answer which began “I know that the honourable lady is frustrated….”.  I have no doubt that this was an innocent opening, and on the way towards addressing Mrs Dorries’ upset at having her efforts on abortion rebuffed. Yet no sooner had the word “frustrated” issued from the premier’s lips than the House – or its dominant male contingent at least – collapsed amid collective giggles and guffaws. Frustrated you see. Geddit? Even Sir George Young, not somebody who you would automatically suspect of intimacy with locker-room humour, threw his head back and smirked. Having thus inadvertantly imparted dirty thoughts into around 300 minds, the prime minister allowed them to wash there a little by joining in the general merriment. Then he made a joke of declaring defeat on the question itself and sat down. Finally, he gave Mr Clegg a pat on the shoulder for all the world as if he were the butt of the humour that had been unleashed around the chamber. In the context of a question from one of his own side about being too matey with his deputy, it was not just an arch, but an ill-advised, gesture

What does this little incident tell us? About the House of Commons, not very much since you do not have to subscribe to any of the doctrines of sexism to understand that it is still a place where much misogyny abides. About the prime minister, a little. Those who say that he is not as nice as he claims will have found here some small evidence to bolster their case. Those who make the more serious charge that he is either blind or indifferent to the gulf that is opening between him and his backbenchers over the balance of power in the coalition will also have had their suspicions strengthened.  For them the joke will soon start to wear a little thin.