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George Osborne, The Force Behind Last Week’s The U-Turn

Last Updated: Friday, June 10th, 2011

A great deal has been written in recent weeks about the difference of view between Andrew Cooper, Downing Street’s recently-arrived head of polling, and Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s long-standing adviser. Cooper is seen as the roundhead (methodical, evidence led, driven by polls) and Hilton as the cavalier (intuitive, untidy, inspired by hunches and instincts). A few weeks ago, Cooper’s
Surveys helped to pull the plug on Andrew Lansley’s original health proposals, which Hilton strongly supported.

This week, the Head of Strategy’s polling drove a second major U-turn – this time on Ken Clarke’s prisons policy, which Hilton is less attached to. (Cooper’s findings mirrored earlier research by Lord Ashcroft which suggested that the Conservatives are in danger of losing their credentials as the party of law and order.) These two retreats have been seen a victory for Cooper over Hilton and
Rationality over romance. That perception is broadly correct, but it misses a vital dimension, and a Government player even more central than these two core members of Team Cameron.

The man in question is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Osborne has a view of Government strategy that could fairly be described as minimalist: he believes that it should be focused on gaining a Conservative majority in 2015 by delivering economic recovery. Hilton has little in common with Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, the independent-minded
authors of the plan who sit in the UK and European Parliaments respectively (and are cool at most about Team Cameron). But, like them, he believes that Government strategy should be maximalist – aimed at securing that election win by going for radical reform.

Hannan and Carswell urged last week that the pace of change be speeded up – they wrote to this effect in the Daily Telegraph – just as the Chancellor was succeeding, in concert with Cooper’s polling, in slowing it down. Osborne acknowledges that recent weeks have produced terrible headlines for the Government, and accusations of chaotic U-turns. And certainly, there is no
precedent in recent years either for subjecting a bill to a “pause” while it’s passing through the Commons (the fate of Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill) or for tearing up a budget settlement to the tune of the best part of £150 million (the destiny of Ken Clarke’s original prisons policy).

But Osborne believes that with one bound, the Government is now free – that it’s sawn itself loose from two sets of balls-and-chain that were shackling its progress. In particular, he was concerned about the potential retoxification of the Tory brand on health. This is a theme that he’s been known to stress to Conservative audiences. He believes that the Party’s negative ratings on the
economy and health when Cameron became Conservative leader were major obstacles to Tory election success, and that Downing Street must strive ceaselessly to keep them in the black.
He argues that once the health bill is settled, and the Government is no longer open to charges of being “soft on crime”, it will be able to concentrate its energies on helping to produce economic recovery. He also stresses the need to control immigration and curb welfare dependency: twin aims that are no less popular with swing voters in Labour marginals than with Conservative ones in
safe seats. The Chancellor’s acutely aware that the Conservatives have little cut-through with C1 and C2 voters – the striving voters that Mrs Thatcher appealed to so successfully.

Pitching to them both targets a group that the Tories need to win if they’re to govern alone and shores up his own position with the Party’s right. Osborne places most of his hopes for public sector reform in the education basket, looking to Michael Gove to shift the system irreversibly through the academies programme. It’s through these means that he hopes to avoid the dangers that Tim Montgomerie warned about in this newsletter last week. His political strategy is as simple, bold and clear-cut as his economic one.

It is also as fragile. Just as the growth that would fire economic recovery may not happen, so the dumping of two major policies may not be a leap to freedom. Instead, it could help brand the Government with a reputation for indecisiveness which, once acquired, is hard to shake off – trapping Number 10 in a cul-de-sac. Furthermore, there is a personal danger for the Chancellor. Much of the centre-right of the party, to which he’s appealing, backs public service reform in general and Lansley’s health ideas in particular. It may not take kindly to Osborne teaming up with Liberal Democrats to forestall it.

Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

The Free Schools initiative is mercifully challenging the notion that there’s a set way of educating special needs children: “Paces School will shortly be submitting its application to the DfE to be considered as one of the first cohort of Special Free Schools in the country. The school, which was set up over a decade ago by parents of children with cerebral palsy, is currently a non maintained special school offering a conductive curriculum. Many years back now, the trustees and management team became inspired by the possibility of becoming a Free School…It is hugely commendable that Government is forging ahead with this exciting agenda and I do firmly hope that Paces School and the children we educate will shortly be helping to pave the way for other special schools across the country.” – Spencer Pitfield. Read More: http://is.gd/2kt1cz

Rage Against The Machine: “It was only a few months before that when the Health Ombudsman released yet another damning report on the treatment of elderly, vulnerable patients in some hospitals. Again, failure to provide food and drink featured strongly in the cases uncovered by that report, along with the – forgive me – predictable stories of patients being left in soiled clothing… Depressingly, I could list more. Any of us could. You don’t reach adulthood in Britain without absorbing the horror of these sequential institutional failures. Yet none of these organisations – that is, none of us – seem able to learn from history.” Graeme Archer. Read More:http://is.gd/ykV5KJ

The fragility of many Conservative MPs’ majorities should be a cause for concern: “Reading Dewi at Slugger O’Toole’s analysis of the Scottish election results – and the fact the SNP were only a few thousand votes short of an even more stunning victory, such was the small size of the Lab/Con/Lib majority in a number of Holyrood seats – I was reminded of the fragility of a number of Conservative Westminster seats. When examining our performance in last year’s general election, an often over-looked fact is that many, almost certainly the majority, of Conservative MPs who won their seats last year from Labour, have smaller majorities than their Labour predecessors had in 1997.” Matthew Barrett: Read More: http://is.gd/Tx8Pqc

The Conservative Party – not UKIP – offers the most realistic way out of the EU:“I have not come home as a repentant sinner but someone who still believes in UKIP’s central message: that of British withdrawal from the EU, which many Conservative members and parliamentarians believe in too, with a number lending their vote to UKIP in European elections. My official statement graciously acknowledged this, saying: “Of course, I have not always seen eye to eye with the Conservative Party on every issue. I continue to believe personally that Britain should leave the EU”. David Campbell Bannerman MEP. Read More: http://is.gd/JhiI7y

The new Prevent policy won’t succeed without an enforcer. I nominate Lord Carlile: “Such an overseer should ideally be an insider (an outsider would be outfoxed by the Whitehall elements who think the policy’s wrong) and a politician (a non-politician wouldn’t carry the necessary weight). I hereby nominate Lord Carlile (pictured above), the independent reviewer of anti-terror laws, who has the added advantage of having been involved in the drafting of the Prevent Review. And if I can say so on a Conservative site, being a Liberal Democrat isn’t a disadvantage in this context, either – the opposite, if anything.” Paul Goodman. Read More: http://is.gd/URQFEA

Protecting the nature around us is fundamental to improving the state of our environment: “Working with departments across government to draw the White Paper together, we have set out how to better protect and improve our natural environment, how to grow a greener economy, and how to capture all the benefits that nature can bring to our society. As Sir John Lawton himself said in his report last year, Government alone can’t do it all. But the 15,000 responses we received to the consultation on the White Paper show just how much people really do care about, and want to invest in, the natural environment around them. Working with all of you, we can fulfil the huge opportunity that The Natural Choice affords us.” – Caroline Spelman MP. Read More: http://is.gd/lJ8w5T

The Archbishop of Canterbury is no friend of the poor: “Why is the Archbishop of Canterbury silent on these realities? The reality of a state that never sacks incompetent teachers, but puts the interests of union-employed staff before pupils? We can’t beat poverty by endlessly spending more and more money. We can beat poverty by strengthening the family, ensuring every child has a good education, by creating jobs for the British working class and by building a social network of innovative poverty-fighting groups.  The Coalition is beginning that work and it is a tragedy that Dr Williams isn’t celebrating it.” – Tim Montgomerie. Read More: http://is.gd/eKSY6v

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