The week we find out George Osborne has shrunk the economy (despite three budgets for “growth”, it’s smaller than it was under Labour), Boris Johnson is cheered like a rockstar in Hyde Park. Watch the video: the crowd love him, breaking into chants of “Boris! Boris! Boris!” No other modern politician could receive such adulation.
By contrast, the Chancellor’s reputation has withered with the GDP figures. Some senior Tories have lost faith. The Tory press, who hailed him as a great strategist, is now not so enchanted. Yet Osborne was never a great strategic thinker. He was simply more rightwing than Cameron. And read Caro. The Tory press mistakes this for strategy. Perhaps if Mr Osborne dropped his books on LBJ, he would realise he is analysing the wrong Johnson.
Let us first skewer the idea that Osborne is a political mastermind. On three occasions, the Chancellor has changed the rules of the game. On each occasion, the rightwing press dubbed him a genius. On each occasion, the political move was the wrong one.
First is the decision to bring Andy Coulson into government. Osborne was the mind behind it. The papers said it was a deft move to bring an Essex boy – a voice of the people – into the circle of blue-blooded cronies. How wrong it was. The closeness between the Tory PM and the tabloid hack, whose own activities at News of the World went unquestioned, was reckless and has grossly damaged the Prime Minister.
Second is the haste and the zeal with which the 50p tax rate was axed. Osborne not only opted to do this; he trumpeted the decision. While it might bring in more money (who knows? The Mail et al. seemed certain that it would), it is a political elephant trap. The image of the Conservatives as the party of the rich – which Cameron tried so hard in opposition to erase – has been rubber-stamped in one easy step.
Third, the most notable, Osborne’s move to scrap inheritance tax for everyone except millionaires. All applauded as he announced the plan at party conference in 2007. Brown, set to call a general election, thought the Tories now had the upper hand and cancelled the election. Because of Osborne, Brown bottled it: this was a master stroke, the papers cried.
But was this Osborne’s intention? To scare Brown into postponing an election? Surely the aim was to set out a policy for the upcoming manifesto. Brown’s retreat was an unforeseen by-product. Had Brown called a snap election – which he could have done – the Tories would have likely lost. William Hague called 2007 a “near-death experience” for the Conservatives. The inheritance tax cut, like the 50p tax cut, is further proof of Tory plutophilia.
Osborne is no strategist. If he were, he would have realised that the Treasury is not the best prime ministerial launch pad. The modern Chancellor (of some length) who covets the throne must wait about 10 years to seize the crown. The reason? The bloody British economy. Brown, who faced only a boom, is the exception. Macmillan and Major were at No 11 barely over a year: little time for things to go wrong. Callaghan and Churchill, who engineered separate disasters at No 11, waited nearly decade before everyone forgot their economic records.
Boris has worked out a far better scheme to reach high office. Forget the Chancellorship: become a mayor. It’ll leave your reputation intact; you can convince all of your political dexterity, hard work and popularity; you can afford to spout off about the EU, the Beeb, ‘elf ‘n’ safety, and other bugbears of the grassroots – especially if you have a column every week – all without compromising the job. Heck, you can even take aim the leader of the party, so long as you do so light-heartedly, with guffaws, hair-ruffling and a couple of references to Pericles.
That is the brilliant thing about a municipal role. As Boris says in his book, Johnson’s Life of London, “It was a seat of local government, a symbol of power.” He is referring to priests in Hadrian’s empire, but he could equally be talking of mayors. As Gorbachev ruled Russia, Boris Yeltsin built up his reputation as party boss of Moscow. That other populist Bo Xilai was forging a power base as party chief of Chongqing before central government moved against him. Local control is a great opportunity for demagoguery.
A true strategist would seize a mayoralty, rather than look after the British economy. Boris, Boris and Bo have got it right: to command the country, take control of a city.