Analysis The Center Can Hold

Osborne Urges Conservatives to Stay Centrist Course

Even if Labour moves to the left, the Tories must stay in the political center, the chancellor argues.

George Osborne on Sunday rejected the possibility of shifting Britain’s ruling Conservative Party to the right if Labour elects the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as its leader this weekend, saying it needs to occupy the center ground Labour has abandoned.

In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Osborne, who is seen as a likely successor to Prime Minister David Cameron, argued that the Conservatives have a “big responsibility to represent the working people of Britain on the center ground of British politics and to offer support and a home for people who don’t want a Labour Party that is far off to the left.”

He denied that the fiscal consolidation effort over which he has presided as chancellor most hurt the poor who might otherwise vote Labour. “The people who suffer most when the economy fails are the poorest,” he said.

Like Cameron, Osborne may be more liberal than conservative and is the face of the “modernization” project that moderated the Tories’ image and rhetoric and helped them win their first parliamentary majority in twenty years in May’s general election.

Part of their strategy is rebranding the Conservative Party, once seen as the home of the privileged, as the party of workers.

On Marr, Osborne argued that his policy in the last five years — when he ruled in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats — had benefited working Britons.

Because of the work we’ve done over the last five years, people how were unemployed have got jobs, the wages are going up, we’re now introducing a national living wage and we’re going to have a welfare system that supports people in need but is sustainable and can be afforded and is, by the way, fair to the people who pay for it: the working people of this country.

In July, Osborne outflanked Labour from the left by introducing a £9 hourly minimum wage, £2.50 higher than it is now. At the same time, he lowered taxes for businesses, betting they won’t be forced to lay off workers.

The Conservatives have also repeatedly raised the income tax threshold, taking the lowest paid out of tax.

But Osborne also announced an additional £35 billion in welfare savings this summer that are bound to affect many at the bottom of the wage scale. Among the measures are a freeze in most working-age benefits and disqualifying Britons under the age of 21 from housing subsidies.

The Financial Times‘ Janan Ganesh argued at the time that the spending plans reflected Osborne’s ambition to transform the individual’s relationship with the state.

Osborne wants to leave behind a country whose citizens, compared with 2010, are less likely to be employed by the state and to rely on fiscal transfers for part of their income.

Politico recently called him “the most powerful man in Britain” and said the Conservatives’ victory in May vindicated the Cameron-Osborne plan, raising the chances that the latter will succeed his boss if — as expected — he steps down before the 2020 election.

Other likely contenders for the leadership are outgoing London mayor Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May. Johnson is a social liberal like Osborne but possibly more Euroskeptic. May is considered the favorite of the more reactionary wing of the party.

Matthew d’Ancona, a liberal Conservative, has argued in The Guardian that none of them are in a rush. “They have a common interest in showing the selectorate — their fellow Tory MPs and the party membership — what they can do in a Conservative-only government,” he argues.

Johnson has to establish himself afresh as more than a charisma-generator. Osborne, meanwhile, needs time to complete his fiscal mission and to make sure that he is personally identified with the more ambitious components of the government’s strategy — especially the national living wage.