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by Jamie Cater 25th November, 2016

Osborne’s 2020 Vision

Budgets, Autumn Statements and Spending Reviews are normally focused on one man: the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne’s designs on the Conservative leadership are one of the worst-kept secrets in Westminster, and so his statement today was delivered with even more attention on the man himself, with his critics preparing to cast judgement on what will be his legacy as David Cameron’s right-hand man.

Comparisons have frequently been made between Osborne and one of his Labour predecessors, Gordon Brown, not least in regard to Osborne’s leadership ambitions. Like the last former Chancellor to enter Number 10, Osborne has successfully used the Treasury to build up his own power base among MPs. His ability to surprise the opposition, and coax it into his not-particularly-subtle political traps, has won him the admiration of parliamentarians across his party over the last five years. Despite a stumble with his Budget in 2012, he has used his political nous in these economic set pieces to construct and sustain a narrative of Conservative competence versus Labour recklessness that appears only to have grown in salience with the public following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. This has helped to burnish his own credentials not just as a Chancellor capable of fixing the economy but as a potential national leader and Prime Minister. Once responsible for an ‘omnishambles’, Osborne has arguably made himself the obvious successor to David Cameron above the eminently popular Boris Johnson and formidable Theresa May.

With announcements on increasing the budget for house building and investment in infrastructure, the Chancellor’s statement continued the ‘we are the builders’ rhetoric from his conference speech and cements the division between government and opposition in the public mind. While the Labour leadership indulges in idle talk of building an anti-austerity movement, the government talks of building houses. While Corbyn does battle with his party over Trident, the government invests in defence at a time when security is at the forefront of people’s minds. Whatever the merits of the government policies announced this afternoon, Osborne easily outwitted John McDonnell – who was left merely waving a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book – and looks far more like the next Prime Minister than Corbyn.

There are difficulties ahead for the Chancellor: local authorities’ social care precept will disappoint those in a sector desperate for substantial new funding, and the U-turn on tax credit cuts – though welcomed by many – contributes to the statutory welfare cap being breached in four of the next five years as the cuts are delayed to be part of Universal Credit. Nevertheless, Osborne’s statement was overwhelmingly positive in its tone and managed to neutralise with consummate ease all of the opposition’s potential attack lines.

The Chancellor has spoken of learning his political trade by watching Tony Blair and his desire to occupy the centre ground of British politics. With the Labour benches looking glum as their Shadow Chancellor resorted to quoting Mao, Osborne’s claim that the Conservatives are the ‘mainstream representatives of the working people of Britain’ does not sound quite as ridiculous as it once might have done. It is a measure of his political intelligence – and Labour’s woes – that the man caricatured and vilified by the left as the ‘axeman’ stood in the Commons today to present himself not just as the Chancellor ensuring a more prosperous future, but the future leader of the country.

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