The Financial Times had an interesting editorial yesterday, on shadow chancellor George Osborne’s attempt to ally himself with the public anger over bankers’ bonuses. At the heart of the article was a question that is asked widely in political and business circles – whether Osborne can be both shadow chancellor, seeking to show he has a grasp of serious economic issues at a time of global recession, and election co-ordinator, a job in which the pressures can sometimes be to act in the short-term interest of an ever shortening media cycle, rather than in the interests of serious policy.
I have made my own contribution to that debate, with this letter in the paper today.
‘If you have a strategic weakness, it seems odd to act systematically to exacerbate it. Yet that appears to be the approach of George Osborne, the shadow chancellor.
His weakness is a shortage of credibility among serious economic opinion, not to be confused with media opinion, which went strangely overboard in praise of his speech to the Tory Party conference, or public opinion, which polling would suggest has a mixed but generally negative view of him.
One of the reasons for his strategic weakness is the sense that he is more interested in short-term political tactics than he is in long-term economic policy, a problem the effect of which is exaggerated by his dual role as shadow chancellor and general election campaign co-ordinator. His initiative on curbing bankers’ bonuses, which fell apart on minimal scrutiny, is but the latest to draw fire from City and business leaders. It was attacked not for being tough, but because it was not thought through.
He suffered a similar credibility hit a few weeks ago when brandishing documents he claimed to have been leaked, which in truth had been published at the time of the last Budget. The media mini-frenzy was a short-term tactical gain at the expense of strategic credibility. Likewise the constantly changing figures on savings from his welfare reform proposals do little to enhance his standing.
All these mistakes reveal a trend, which will become a problem during the heat of a campaign, when his Party’s positions on the handling of the economic crisis may come under greater scrutiny than they did at the time.
Conservatives point out that Gordon Brown also performed a significant election role alongside his duties as shadow chancellor from 1994-97, and again as chancellor in 2001 and 2005. But as I know from sometimes bitter experience as Tony Blair’s press secretary and campaign strategist, Mr Brown was often reluctant to engage in anything which he felt put at risk core credibility on the economy.
In appointing Mr Osborne to both positions, David Cameron perhaps reveals his own weakness in failing to differentiate between strategy and tactics. It might be sensible for the Conservative leader to relieve Mr Osborne of one of his two posts. I sense that the City would like it to be the shadow chancellorship. The Labour Party will be hoping that’s the one he keeps.
Alastair Campbell, London NW3′
Thanks to the FT for publishing it. Worth adding here that perhaps the biggest hit on Osborne’s credibility stems from his misjudgements when the global economic crisis first erupted. In opposing a fiscal stimulus, he and Cameron set themselves apart not just from the government, the CBI and the IoD but from every other major economy in the world.
The impact on jobs would have been catastrophic, and a reminder of the last Tory recession. The costs of additional unemployment benefits could well have dwarfed the cost of the stimulus he opposed. The construction sector, challenged enough as it is, would have been hit even harder as housing plans were abandoned and capital projects delayed. The automotive industry would have been similarly battered, with no car scrappage scheme to sustain the 750,000 jobs that indirectly that depend on it.
Oh, and he would have allowed Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley to go to the wall.
These were big calls, and deserve to be much more central to the political debate than they currently are, which is why the FT was right to make the point it made yesterday.