The inscrutable chancellor捉摸不透的财政大臣The Osborne identity奥斯本身份之谜
As he prepares for his second budget, the chancellor of the exchequer remains a mystery to many in Westminster
NO OTHER office of state carries the mystique of chancellor of the exchequer, a job that comes with almost prime-ministerial power but only a rare duty to enter the spotlight. The next of these occasions comes on March 23rd, when George Osborne delivers his second budget. Coalition government has left him even less visible, and less understood, than he might have been: Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, has become the second face of the coalition, alongside David Cameron, the prime minister.
Mr Osborne’s elusiveness would matter less, were the gap between his public profile and his influence smaller. His plan virtually to eliminate the structural deficit in this parliament is the government’s main task; the parallel project to reform the public services takes place within budgetary limits set by him. But his sway extends beyond the Treasury, where his seriousness and technical command have surprised civil servants who expected the neophyte of popular pre-general election caricature. Mr Osborne also does much of the government’s political thinking. He is often the dominant voice in the kind of strategy meetings—many of which Mr Cameron lets him chair—in which he first shone as a young adviser in the 1990s.
He had few allies in the Conservative Party in opposition, but a support base is now growing under him. His special advisers are the best in the government. There are “Osbornite” MPs, such as Matthew Hancock and Greg Hands. His stock has risen on his party’s right: many who once mistrusted his desire to move the Tories to the centre ground now see him as a more vigilant guardian of Tory views in the coalition than Mr Cameron.
None of this means that Mr Osborne is the “real” prime minister, as some maintain. Mr Cameron’s decisions ultimately carry the day. Neither is their relationship anything like as fraught as that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Mr Osborne is ambitious but knows that any opportunity to lead his party or country is years away. He also knows that, as our pre-budget opinion poll demonstrates (see article), voters are yet to warm to him.
Still, grasping the differences between the two men is crucial to understanding how the government works. The contrast between Mr Osborne, a lifelong metropolitan, and Mr Cameron, a son of the rural home counties, is often said to lie in the former’s social liberalism. But Mr Osborne is more liberal on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights than on law and order. And on foreign policy, Mr Cameron would get an easier ride at a trendy London dinner party than hawkish Mr Osborne.
The real difference between them lies in their approach to politics. Mr Osborne is obsessed with winning. He is less moved by abstract ideas such as the “Big Society”. He is more inclined to belligerence towards political opponents, whether they be trade unions or the Labour Party. Some Tories think they would now be governing alone had Mr Osborne run last year’s election campaign by himself.
This hunger for victory comes from tasting multiple defeats as an adviser. Mr Cameron at least worked on the Tories’ triumphant 1992 election campaign (Mr Osborne was still a student) and took a sojourn in business during the party’s dog days later in the 1990s (Mr Osborne never left Westminster). The chancellor clocked that the Tories needed to soften their right-wing image long before Mr Cameron did.
In his economics, however, Mr Osborne is an old-fashioned Conservative. His free-market instincts sometimes show; he once flirted with the idea of a “flat”, rather than progressive, income tax. He has been restrained in punishing the banking sector for its part in the financial crisis.
But, when it comes to the public finances, Mr Osborne is a sober fiscal hawk rather than a gung-ho Reaganite tax-cutter. Perhaps his best judgment came in opposition, in the period before the financial crash, when he resisted calls from the right to promise an overall tax cut. The subsequent crisis vindicated him, but Britain’s relapse into negative growth in the last quarter has brought new demands for tax cuts, or, from the left, slower spending cuts. Voters are worried, as our poll shows.
Committed as he is to austerity, in his budget Mr Osborne is likelier to reform taxes than to cut them. That commitment is a political as well as an economic gamble: a double-dip, or even prolonged slow growth, would wound him. The economy will determine whether his credibility keeps soaring, or has already peaked.