A few months ago, George Osborne, in the eyes of many of his MPs and much of the media, could do no wrong.
He was not just the Chancellor presiding over a bold plan to cure all known economic ills in a single term. He was also the party strategist whose economic and political mastery would ensure that Plan A led to what David Cameron failed to ensure first time round, namely a Tory majority. Then he would be well placed to take over when DC stepped down.
The economic part of that is not the only Plan A backfiring badly. Osborne’s star has fallen so far and so fast that some of his colleagues are openly suggesting the Party’s recovery may require a change at Number 11. Just as important, politically, commentators and experts all too keen to dismiss anything Ed Miliband and Ed Balls said on the economy are beginning to say they had a point in their constant attacks about the lack of a strategy for jobs and growth, and the idea that cutting the public sector too far and too fast would impinge upon private sector growth too.
As Cameron is showing with his gravity-defying, judgement-defying hold on Jeremy Hunt, the Prime Minister is not keen on letting ministers go, and there is no minister more senior than the one next door. But for all their closeness down the years you do not have to be a Tory insider to sense the beginnings of tensions between 10 and 11 (I have some experience in this area).
The problem for Osborne all stems from the Budget, and the decision to cut the top rate of tax. ‘All in this together’ RIP. ‘The Big Society’ – forget it. Whatever the economic arguments – unproven – the political arguments were stacked so clearly against that only ‘two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’ could possibly have thought it a good idea.
And as Nadine Dorries’ seminal soundbite settles itself slowly and surely into the political backdrop as powerfully as Ann Widdecombe’s ‘something of the night’ jibe at Michael Howard, the mood around both DC and GO has changed. Cameron’s strengths – communications and calmness under pressure – are now seen as lack of substance, and arrogance combined with an inability to take criticism or listen to others. And Osborne’s reputation as a strategist – already questionable given they failed to win a majority on such a good wicket for an Opposition – has been shattered. As so often, it is one bold but stupid move that has done it for him.
Out and about at various events in both London and the North last week, I was struck by how negative naturally Tory leaning business people were about the government, many echoing the views of high profile businessmen like Richard Branson and Martin Sorrell that ‘they don’t have a strategy.’
Osborne’s job is meant to be the economy and strategy. Given the lack of improvement in the former and the lack of clarity about the latter, neither he nor the PM should be surprised at the change in mood around them both. Throw in their woeful handling of the Beecroft report, and their central role in events under scrutiny at the Leveson Inquiry, and Nadine D is not the only Tory MP thinking that the two men seen as their greatest strengths risk becoming their biggest weaknesses.