Why George Osborne is an Optimist – and Why He Needs to Be

at Birmingham Uni

The knives are well and truly out for George Osborne.  The Observer reports that Labour are going to target him as the shadow teams ‘weakest link’.  The polling data (referenced in the Observer article) confirms that the public are averse to him – and I’ll add to the evidence with a less scientific straw-poll of my own ‘vote undecided’ mates all of whom see him as a liability.   To pick out the key words from their objections to him he apparently lacks ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’.

It is maddening there is any doubt in the electorate’s mind  who is the safer pair of hands for the economy.  The economy should be an ‘Open Goal’ for the Tories but somehow they seem intent on blasting over-the-bar from close range.  Osborne is finally realising that he’s got to turn this public perception around.  There is no room on the front bench for someone who wants to be a back room strategist – if he wants one of the ‘Great Offices of State’ he has to get out there  and land his message in the minds of the public.    Is he really up to the task?

I like to judge politicians in the flesh so on Friday I went along to the University of Birmingham to listen to him deliver a speech there.   He spoke with only hand scribbled notes, not quite a sharp as Cameron who can manage these things without any reference material, but certainly better than most current politicians who wouldn’t dare step up to a lectern without a fully typed speech and/or autocue.

He spoke of three central themes the Tories wish to land:

  • That they have a credible plan for the deficit.  He delved into some of the detail making clear that it is the structural deficit he has to target and that we are in the bonkers position that the State is still spending £4 for every £3 it receives.  That we need to make the cuts ‘not on the backs of the poorest in society’.  He hinted any tax cuts would come from NI before he aimed at the 50% tax band – and indeed the NI cut seems to have been made official policy this morning.  He was more open about where he would cut income than where he would cut expenditure and I know that annoys people.  They do have to add this detail to the public domain soon.
  • That there are plans to ‘get business’ going again.    He gave some detail on the help to be given to small businesses.  As the owner of a small business myself there is real gold in these proposals.
  • To create a more balanced economy.  Again, he delved into a little detail on how Tory policies on education reform, welfare-to-work, energy policy and broadband infrastructure would pull together to achieve that end.

All the content of the speech was fine – he certainly pushed all the right buttons for me.   If there was a problem it wasn’t the content – it was the delivery.

It is hard to put your finger on what is ‘wrong’ with the delivery.    Some people are blessed with a presence , voice and stature that commands an audience to cling to every word .  They could frankly read out the dry text of a European Directive and keep an audience fully engaged.   George Osborne is not one of those people.  Politics should not be like that, it harms our democracy that it is.  To make the leap from manager to leader you need this X-factor.   I guess the point of the phrase ‘X-factor’ is that the ‘X’ is impossible to define.  Whatever it is: he hasn’t got it.

I guess the plan was always that he could cling onto Cameron’s coat tails to get the job then the missing ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’ would grow by default as he made the job his own.  The calculation must have been that whilst he isn’t an electoral asset he wouldn’t be a liability and would be good at the job.  That ‘wouldn’t be a liability’ part of the assumption is now being tested.

We did get a five minute glimpse that it is within him on certain themes to strike the right chord.  In response to a question about the possibility of a double –dip recession he suddenly went a bit off-piste and talked about his personal optimism for Britain.

His point was that despite the global woe when you look at the global business cycle, and you look at the surge of economic activity in India, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China and so on, as the manufacturing and service base they have created over the last few years settles down (which has been to a certain extent at our expense) so their new middle-class begins to embed middle-class spending habits.  When we look at the industries Britain still excels at – pharma, aerospace engineering, media, financial services, prestige brands, tourism etc – these are all things that this new global middle-class will push their new found wealth into.   We are poised to be big benefactors of that shift.  With the right policies to support our economy whilst the global cycle swings to this next stage – there can and should be great hope for the UK.

As he warmed to his optimistic theme he relaxed, his shoulders visibly dropped an inch, he smiled, his hands moved – there was passion there.  He had a compelling, well articulated narrative which he believed in.  In response the audience sat up straighter, leaned forward, listened closely – they were with him – they were engaged.  The moment ended as quickly as it had started when he then fielded a question about his role in managing both fiscal and monetary policy.  The spell was broken.

Cameron isn’t going to change horses this close to the finish line.   Osborne is the man and he has to drag himself out of this rut where he is being cast as a liability.  He needs to find something else on top of the depressing detail of what needs to be done to get us out of the economic hole – if you’re asking people for pain now, you have to have them believe that there will be less pain tomorrow.  The optimistic message is key – he should develop it and shout it from the rooftops.

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