George Osborne’s recent Budget unravelled spectacularly last week. Does this spell the end for his hopes of becoming prime minister?
Observing the chaos currently overwhelming the Conservative Party following George Osborne’s Budget, it is perplexing to think that only last year commentators were hailing the chancellor as a political mastermind. Given David Cameron’s apparent support for the chancellor, it was simply a matter of time before George Osborne replaced the PM and moved into Number 10 – so was the general consensus.
However, just over half a year on, George Osborne’s hopes of becoming prime minister appear to be slimming by the day. Last Wednesday, he delivered his eighth budget to the House of Commons. Even at the time of its announcement, it was a miserable failure. The chancellor was forced to admit that he had failed to meet two of his three own economic commitments, and that growth forecasts have been cut every year for the next five years. As a result, he introduced a tax on sugary drinks presumably to try and help distract from these economic failures, considering the government opposed the policy only last month. However, one thing George Osborne could not distract from was the resignation of a senior minister, and subsequently the complete unravelling of his Budget.
Within the Conservative manifesto was a pledge to raise the threshold for the 40p rate of tax to £50,000, a policy which Osborne included in this year’s Budget. However, to fund this policy the chancellor was poised to raid the welfare budget by cutting £1.2bn from Personal Independence Payments to disabled people, which would have left hundreds of thousands around £3,500 worse off per year. This despicable proposal – hitting the vulnerable in society hardest to help fund a tax cut for the middle classes – caused outrage, even amongst Conservative MPs who launched an open rebellion against the move. And on Friday, the former Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, dramatically resigned over the issue, causing chaos among the party.
Yet, what is most remarkable is that George Osborne failed to foresee such a fallout over a blindly unfair budget. However, this isn’t the first time the chancellor has failed to predict the consequences of his policy choices.
It was only several months ago when Osborne was prepared to slash tax credits by £4bn, which again resulted in rebellion. Not only were millions of people set to lose out on around £1,000 as a result of the cuts, but the chancellor was targeting the exact demographic – working families – the Conservative Party is attempting to appeal to. It was obvious that such a move would be politically disastrous, yet Osborne attempted to pursue the policy anyway, before eventually backing down.
And in 2012, he put forward a Budget that fell apart on almost every level – famously being dubbed the “omnishambles budget.”
As an aspiring prime minister, you would expect George Osborne to be able to analyse public opinion effectively and foresee potential political fallouts, yet the evidence suggests the chancellor is incapable of doing so. At least, that is how many Tory MPs who are sceptical about his leadership capabilities will perceive the situation.
And that is significant, because George Osborne faces a formidable leadership competitor in Boris Johnson, presuming they both run to succeed David Cameron in becoming Conservative leader. The Mayor of London enjoys rare favourable ratings among the public, and perhaps most notably, has come out for “leave” in the EU debate; around two-thirds of Conservative members want Britain to leave the EU, and most will be looking for a candidate who shares their views on Europe when David Cameron steps down post-referendum. George Osborne, who is set to be a prominent pro-EU campaigner in the referendum debate alongside David Cameron, does not fit this requirement.
All of these factors combined – Osborne’s seeming inability to perceive public opinion effectively, Iain Duncan Smith’s recent resignation, and the chancellor’s pro-EU stance – are beginning to influence the Conservative membership. The first proper poll of Tory members (released at the start of the month) puts Boris Johnson miles ahead on 43 per cent, with Osborne trailing miserably at 22 per cent, followed by Theresa May on 19 per cent and Sajid Javid on seven per cent. These figures suggest Boris Johnson may now be unstoppable, especially considering the poll was conducted before George Osborne’s recent Budget shambles. Moreover, recent YouGov data shows that only eight per cent of the British public think the chancellor would be up to the job of being prime minister, while 73 per cent think he would not up to the job of being PM. And in further bleak news, only 17 per cent of the public believe he is doing a good job as chancellor, while 58 per cent think he is doing a bad job.
George Osborne, who was once David Cameron’s inevitable replacement, instead looks like he may be out of office in a matter of months. Meanwhile, there is a strong possibility that Boris Johnson will succeed David Cameron and become our next prime minister. And if this is to change, it is increasingly looking like the chancellor will need nothing short of a miracle.