Osborne May Increasingly Define Conservative Agenda

To ensure his legacy, David Cameron could allow his deputy to spearhead the party’s modernization.

British prime minister David Cameron in Newmarket, Suffolk, February 20
British prime minister David Cameron in Newmarket, Suffolk, February 20 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Arron Hoare)

British prime minister David Cameron’s surprise victory in May’s general election has made it more likely that his like-minded chancellor and deputy, George Osborne, will succeed him as Conservative Party leader before the next election, due in 2020.

But Osborne needs to be more than the candidate of continuity to triumph in an internal leadership election that is likely to pit him against London mayor Boris Johnson or Home Secretary Theresa May, both of whom are seen as more right-wing.

Change candidate

Dan Hodges, a former Labour Party official, argues in The Daily Telegraph that Osborne will have to set himself apart.

He knows that the message “more of the same” will not be enough. Or at least he knows that represents the greatest threat to his ambitions. The fear that one of his opponents could seize the mantle of “the change candidate.”

One difference between the two men now at the top of British politics, according to Hodges, is that Cameron is an instinctive conservative and Osborne more of a radical who seeks to expand the party.

Different backgrounds

That difference of mentality is reflected in their constituencies.

Cameron, raised in the quiet arcadia of South England, was elected in Oxfordshire, a traditional Tory backyard.

Osborne, by contrast, was born in London and represents the constituency of Tatton — a relatively safe Conservative seat but one a stone’s throw away from the Labour strongholds of Manchester and Liverpool.

Hodges believes this helps explain the different scale of their ambitions:

David Cameron has always had a relatively modest political objective — the return of a Tory majority government. In contrast, George Osborne’s goal is to completely redraw the political map of Britain.

Accelerate reforms

Should he succeed Cameron, Osborne would likely accelerate the process of reforming — and transforming — the Conservative brand into one for “hardworking people,” as this year’s party conference in Manchester proclaims.

There were hints of that in Osborne’s conference speech on Monday when he said Labour’s supporters should know that the ruling party is on their side. “They want security and opportunity but they didn’t quite feel able to put their trust in us,” he said. “We’ve got to understand their reservations.”

Johnson and May, by contrast, largely spoke to the Conservative Party faithful — the former with characteristic quips at Labour’s expense; the latter with an unexpectedly strong argument against immigration.

“Radicalized”

The Financial Times‘s Janan Ganesh is less sure that David Cameron’s ambitions are so modest. He agrees with Hodges that the prime minister didn’t set out to radically change Britain. But, he writes, Cameron was “radicalized by events”:

Met with a hung parliament five years ago, he formed a coalition. Flanked by headstrong cabinet colleagues, he lets them work. Discombobulated by the crash, he tore up his economic policy.

The man who was going to be another Harold Macmillan — “the Tory grandee elegantly steering his country to no particular destination” — is turning out to be a disruptive prime minister. From decentralization in government and schools to an overhaul of welfare and wages, Cameron’s government is transforming the British state and will likely shift the middle ground in British politics to the right.

If we struggle to see that, his English aversion to ideology and its articulation is the reason.

As is his disposition. There is nothing that suggests Cameron fancies himself another Margaret Thatcher even if history might look back on his tenure as no less significant.

Osborne clearly has a more powerful sense of ambition. Cameron will resign at some point before the next election, content to leave his country in a better state than he found it in. Osborne isn’t finished.

But their sense of direction is the same — for the country and their party. Which is why the two work so well together. And why Cameron won’t mind his deputy staking out a platform of his own. “Only a George Osborne succession can truly cement his political legacy,” as Hodges puts it.

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