Confidence is coursing through Downing Street at the moment. The economy is growing at a good clip and senior Tories feel more optimistic than ever about the result of the next general election. With this belief in retaining office comes more thought about what a second-term Cameron government would have to do. Minds are also turning to the question of how the top team should be reshaped after the general election.
Politically, one issue towers above all others: Europe. Within 18 months of being re-elected, the government will have to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and put them to a referendum. This timetable means that the European question would dominate the start of any secondCameron term.
I understand that George Osborne is lining himself up to take on this challenge, to become Foreign Secretary. One of those familiar with his thinking on the matter says, by way of explanation, ‘George likes to be where the action is’.
It is hard to imagine Osborne not wanting to be central to the policy that would determine the success or otherwise of a second Conservative term. As Chancellor, he is already involved in EU policy. But moving to King Charles Street would enable him to devote all of his considerable political energies to the matter.
There are several reasons why this move makes sense. Osborne is Cameron’s problem-solver and the Prime Minister will have no bigger problem to solve in his second term than how to obtain an EU deal that is acceptable to the bulk of the Conservative party. Then there’s the fact that the political success of the renegotiation would require the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to march in lockstep. Cameron and Osborne are experienced at this. In nearly nine years, with Cameron as leader and Osborne as finance spokesman, the pair have not fallen out. They have also kept their known disagreements to a minimum; government unity is hardly endangered by their differing views on a married couple’s tax allowance. Perhaps most remarkably for contemporary politics, they have prevented their camp followers from sniping at each other. Even in the dark days that followed the 2012 budget, the Osborne and Cameron teams did not turn on each other.
There would have been a time when putting Osborne in charge of a policy that the public get to vote on in a referendum would have been politically suicidal. Between December 2011 and August 2012, his approval rating plummeted by 30 points to minus 32. He was even booed at the Paralympics. But Osborne has gone a long way towards turning his image around. His approval ratings are now positive, with 47 per cent of voters satisfied with his performance and 44 per cent dissatisfied. When I wrote recently that the first joint appearance of Cameron and Osborne in years was intended to make it harder for Labour to hide Ed Balls, I was corrected by one No. 10 aide who told me that the real significance of the event was to show that ‘George is not a liability any more’.
Sending Osborne to the Foreign Office would also fit the Conservative case about why they should be trusted with the renegotiation. Their line is: they’ve turned the economy round, so you should have confidence that they’ll do the same with Europe. As the party’s most recent political broadcast puts it, ‘We’re working through our long-term economic plan at home — and we’ll work through our plan to deliver real change in Europe too.’
Implicit in this argument is the sense that while it might not always look as though things are heading in the right direction, you can trust the Conservatives to come good in the end. Osborne, as the pilot who weathered the economic storm, is particularly well suited to deliver this message.
There are other reasons which his friends don’t mention that might also explain why Osborne is keen on this move. If the Conservatives are still in power after the next election, it will be the improving economy that won it. Osborne has confounded all the predictions of a triple dip recession to deliver better than 3 per cent annual growth. If he left the Treasury after victory in 2015, he would be going out on a high. His place in history as a successful Chancellor would be secure. As Gordon Brown used to joke, ‘There are two kinds of Chancellor: those whose careers end in failure, and those who get out in time.’
Then there is the subject that dare not speak its name: the Conservative leadership. Ever since skirmishes between the Osborne and Boris Johnson camps made headlines two months ago, those at the top of the party have been at pains not to do anything that could renew hostilities. Gone are the jibes of Osborne’s ministerial allies that ‘it is time for Achilles to stop sulking in his tent’. They have been replaced by encomiums to the Mayor’s talents. But the leadership question has not gone away.
It is obvious to anyone that the European issue, and the candidates’ attitudes to it, will be crucial to deciding who succeeds Cameron. It is inconceivable that — whatever his Cabinet job — Osborne won’t campaign on the same side as Cameron come the referendum. So if Osborne is going to be tied to this new EU deal, he might as well be the one who negotiates it. One can imagine in a future leadership contest that there could be an appeal to being the man who wrested the key concessions from the French.
Osborne would not be eyeing up the Foreign Office if he believed that William Hague, his old boss, would still be there after 2015. The Chancellor’s contemplation of the job indicates that the Conservative leadership shares the private view of many Cabinet ministers that the Foreign Secretary is unlikely to continue in frontline politics after the next election.
Cameron’s and Osborne’s political careers have been yoked together since the 2005 leadership campaign. If, at any point, Cameron had been sunk, Osborne would have gone down with him. He was, after all, the architect of Cameron’s defining project in opposition, modernisation, and in government, deficit reduction. Osborne’s taking charge of the most politically perilous aspect of Cameron’s second term would be the logical continuation of the partnership that has defined the modern Conservative party. These two will stand or fall together.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 May 2014