Is George Osborne too much of a toff to lead the Conservative party? On the face of it, the answer’s no, even if he does look like ‘a powdered French aristocrat’ (Charles Moore). Douglas Hurd was ruled out on the grounds that he was a titled ex-public schoolboy, but that was 22 years ago. If David Cameron’s poshness isn’t an electoral handicap, then why should George Gideon Oliver Osborne’s be?
But I’m beginning to suspect he’s the wrong sort of toff. On Radio 4 earlier this week, Janan Ganesh made the point that while the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are members of the same class, Cameron is a country mouse and Osborne is a city mouse. That makes Cameron more of a one-nation, paternalist Tory — a ‘communitarian’ in the parlance of Conservative party kremlinologists. Osborne, by contrast, is metropolitan and sophisticated — a social as well as an economic liberal. Which is why he has never fully bought in to the Big Society.
Ganesh, who’s writing a friendly biography of Osborne, sees this as a political asset and it’s clear from a perusal of the Chancellor’s press cuttings that he does too. In a 2007 Guardian interview with Decca Aitkenhead, he was at pains to point out that neither of his parents were Tories and his mother was an ex-employee of Amnesty International. He is a natural moderniser who is at ease with contemporary Britain, even if he is heir to a baronetcy.
The reason I think this is problematic is because it’s the wrong sort of personal history for a Conservative leader. His city upbringing might account for why he’s in one party faction rather than another, but it doesn’t explain why he’s a member of the party in the first place. If he had been born on a council estate and gone to a comprehensive, it wouldn’t matter. He could spin a plausible yarn about how his early years had taught him a lesson about the value of hard work or some such guff.
But if you’re to the manor born and have urban roots, that’s a little trickier. Cameron, being a rural squire, can point to the tradition of public service — can hint at a sense of noblesse oblige — to explain why he’s a Tory. Osborne has no comparable narrative to draw on. That leaves room for people to make up their own minds about why he’s devoted his career to the Conservative party and, inevitably, the theories they come up with aren’t flattering. It’s because he wants to protect his family fortune or look after his rich friends. Or because he sees politics as a kind of chess game in which he can exercise his ruthless intellect. The fact that his motives are so opaque has made it possible for left-wing critics to portray him as a Steve Bell caricature of a Tory politician.
Which accounts for why words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘sneering’ are so often used about him. It’s not that he lacks the right personality for front-line politics in an age of mass communications, though he isn’t particularly good on television. It’s more that his enemies have been able to saddle him with an unattractive personality because his own story hasn’t provided him with an easy way to deflect those accusations. He’s just a rich kid who was brought up in a large house in Notting Hill and went to an elite London day school. There’s nothing he can cite in mitigation, nothing he can point to as a counterweight.
I’m not saying anything about his real motives here. I’m sure they’re no better or worse than those of any other successful politician. I’m just talking about the person he has been cast as in the public imagination. As a rule, people assume the worst about politicians, particularly Conservative politicians. The Chancellor’s problem is that he hasn’t been able to draw on any aspect of his life to persuade people otherwise. He hasn’t invented a persona to substitute for the one the public have invented for him.
To a certain extent, his personality is to blame. He’s naturally reserved and seems to belong to an age in which ‘opening up’ and ‘sharing’ was considered bad form. It’s hard to imagine him shedding a tear while being probed by Piers Morgan. As Chancellor, this air of mystery has served him well, creating an impression of a slightly sinister, powerful figure — the Talleyrand of Cameron’s court. But it won’t do if he wants to become Prime Minister. For that, he’s going to need a better back story.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2012