Overview: moment of truth

By the time you read this it should have become clear just how effective
George Osborne is as shadow chancellor. The fact is that this Budget, in the
middle of a recession, should be the biggest opportunity yet for the shadow
chancellor to seriously damage the Labour party over its management of the
credit crunch and the recession.

What’s happened?

Osborne has had a mixed record as shadow chancellor. He delivered some
telling blows over the reforming of tax for non-doms and inheritance tax, and
yet he seems quite able to get himself into political hot water ­ such as the
tangle he found himself in over accepting an invitation to the yacht of Russian
billionaire Oleg Deripaska while holidaying on Corfu.

Now he needs to deliver some knockout blows over the Budget.

He was scathing of Gordon Brown, when the prime minister was chancellor,
famously describing him as the ‘chancellor past his sell-by date, a chancellor
holding Britain back’.

Indeed, his attacks became so harsh he was on one occasion rebuked by the
Speaker of the House of Commons. He will need to find that kind of form again.

Osborne’s rise is interesting because he is not a trained economist (indeed,
few chancellors and their shadows ever are ­ except Vince Cable). He got a 2:1
from Oxford in modern history and after failing to find a job on a national
newspaper Osborne, heir to the Osborne Baronetcy of Ballentaylor in Tipperary,
Ireland, landed a job at Conservative Central Office.

He is closely associated with David Cameron’s rejuvenation of the Tory party
but he got his shadow post from Michael Howard when he was Leader of the
Opposition after the 2005 general election. It’s reported Osborne took the post
only after both Cameron and William Hague had turned it down.

Despite the aristocratic background he has pursued a populist line over the
credit crunch, haranguing bankers for their behaviour. He took an ill-judged
swing at fair value accounting during a party conference last year, but most
recently suggested in a speech that investment banking and ‘utility’ banking
functions should not be under the same roof. In the same speech he is also said
to have ‘repudiated’ the theory of ‘efficient markets’ causing at least one
commentator to remark that Osborne had heralded a return to a ‘genuine’
conservative policy and turned his back on neo-liberalism.

It’s unlikely Osborne would be disappointed with comments like that. David
Cameron has been looking for a saleable philosophy for some time and the crisis
seems to have placed one in Osborne’s lap.

What he has to do now is turn it to his advantage in attacking the
government. And that’s hard because Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have done
a fairly good job of shedding responsibility (justifiably so ­ up to a point).

Osborne will also have to demonstrate he doesn’t need Ken Clarke as a
backseat driver on economic policy. Clarke’s recent appointment to the Treasury
team was not exactly good news for Osborne; it seemed to say he couldn’t cope
alone. But the doubters can be dealt with as long as he profits from the Budget.

There will be opportunities. Osborne only has to grasp them.

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