This is a story of impossible gifts. The Chancellor, George Gideon Oliver Osborne, stands to inherit a 17th-century baronetcy and a large fortune accumulated by his enterprising father. He was also blessed with intelligence, charm, ambition, eloquence and the mysterious ability to seek out power and use it for his own ends.
His biographer, Janan Ganesh, has written a pacy, well-researched book whose only fault is its unquestioning fealty to its subject. Osborne excelled at St Paul’s and Oxford and then strolled into Conservative Central Office as a special adviser. No career but politics interested him. At 25, he was holding one-to-one briefings with the prime minister, John Major. In 2001, he became the youngest member of the Commons, after bagging the ultra-safe seat of Tatton. ‘I’m buying at the bottom of the market,’ was how he described his position within the Tory party.
He was one of the elite group of advisers who prepared William Hague, and later Michael Howard, for the weekly joust with Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions. Osborne supplied Howard with one of his best-known put-downs. ‘This grammar school boy isn’t going to take any lessons from that public school boy …’
When Cameron took over, Osborne was asked to pen more golden phrases. Blair had famously summarised his ideals in three words, ‘education, education, education’. Cameron offered three letters: ‘NHS.’ It was Osborne’s line.
Ganesh’s adulatory tone fades as his subject comes closer to power. He notes the ‘brittle voice and icy mien’ that will forever prevent Osborne from assuming the premiership. Osborne has a tragic flaw — the desire for grand connections — which drew him into controversy in 2008 after he boarded Nat Rothschild’s yacht in Corfu where he met Peter Mandelson and the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Osborne was accused of tapping up the Russian billionaire for an illegal bung. The charges were groundless, but the mud stuck.
The book’s most fascinating section concerns Osborne’s role in the election campaign of 2010. The Tories had it on a plate. The economy was crocked, the cabinet was riddled with would-be assassins, and No. 10 was occupied by the nastiest political figure since Oswald Mosley. And still the Conservatives blew it.
Indecision and impotence reigned. Cameron, who hates discord, tried to settle the differences between Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton by making them share an office. Hilton, the hip-hop marketing messiah, argued for a Year Zero approach to the campaign and suggested the slogan ‘Rethink Everything’. Osborne overruled him. But Hilton was permitted to write the party manifesto and to give it the sublimely pompous title ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’. Ganesh is one of the few mortals to have emerged alive from reading this 130-page treatise and he calls it ‘bizarrely oblique’. He’s being polite. We elect governments to rule us, not to play pass-the-parcel with the concept of ruling us. Ted Heath committed the same blunder in 1974. ‘Who governs?’ he mused. Not you, squire.
The Tories’ keynote error was their failure to hire their preferred advertisers, M&C Saatchi. The firm claimed that their association with another important client, Transport for London, prevented them from accepting the brief. But advertisers will always shift allegiances in their ceaseless quest for kudos, influence and big fees. The sorry truth is that M&C Saatchi regarded Transport for London (a publicly funded monopoly which has no need to advertise anything as a swankier and more impressive client than Cameron’s incoming Tory government.
Incredible as it seems, the Tories were left to create their own adverts around a table. Hence the disastrous ‘airbrushed Dave’ poster, which set the tone for the campaign and confirmed the widely held view that the Tories were a smug gang of bungling dissemblers. Their bid for power never recovered.
Osborne rose when his party were sunk. If the Tories re-enact their famous impersonation of the Titanic, their chancellor will vanish with them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012