The shadow chancellor's last conference speech set the course for a dramatic Tory revival and turned him into a "big beast." But what will he do with power?by Jonathan Ford / June 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
George Osborne is describing the dark days of spring 1997 in No 10 Downing Street. “You just know when the power is draining away. We would phone up, say, the boss of the TUC and say: ‘The prime minister would like to see you today to discuss such and such,’ and they would reply that he was too busy because he was lunching with Blair.”
The shadow chancellor is strap-hanging on the underground, on his way to Crewe to campaign in the by-election. It’s odd to hear him speak so openly about the bleakest era in living Tory memory, given that the Conservatives are 20 points ahead in the polls and—consciously, jubilantly—on the verge of a famous by-election victory.
Is Osborne unpacking his memories about his spell as an adviser in the last weeks of the Major government for the benefit of our fellow passengers? Scarcely. They go through a very British performance of recognising and ostentatiously ignoring him. Not that he cares. He’s being mischievous, clearly relishing the recollection of impotence at No 10 because it applies now to Gordon Brown, pacing his office as funds, flattery and seekers of influence migrate to the opposition.
But the story is also a reminder of how Osborne’s own political education has been shaped by adversity. He was only five when the Tories last won a by-election in a safe Labour seat in 1977. He was still at university when the Tories won their last election in 1992. One senior Conservative colleague observes that the long polar night of Conservatism is critical to understanding Osborne: “The 1997-2001 period was especially important, because he saw the consequences of a half-hearted attempt at modernisation.”
On arrival in Cheshire, Osborne heads to campaign headquarters, awash with euphoric shadow ministers. The atmosphere is light-hearted, light-headed, but Osborne isn’t here to lark about. He goes about the business of campaigning with a certain doggedness. He moves smartly from door to door, patiently getting his point across—a plea for a big turnout to “send a message to Gordon Brown.” At one house, where the husband is pro-Conservative but the wife a Lib Dem supporter, Osborne good-humouredly argues that she should vote tactically. “It’s called a ‘lend-us-your-vote’ strategy,” he grins as we retreat down the driveway. Tactics, strategy—the words recur again and again throughout the day. This is his language: he speaks it like a native.