There has been a lot of talk about how (apart from Alex Salmond of course) the biggest winner from last Thursday's election and referendum results was David Cameron. Indeed Cameron is certainly in a strengthened position now having incredibly increased his share of council seats despite being a year into a government that has made big public spending cuts and increased taxation. And the fact that the AV referendum failed by such a large margin shows that Cameron can be a winner when he puts his mind to it (albeit slightly late in the day in this case).
Tuesday, 10 May 2011
But I think the biggest winner from last week is Chancellor George Osborne. It is widely known that Osborne was the one who stiffened Cameron's spine and got him to focus on the consequences of a Yes vote for the party. In this excellent comprehensive account of the No campaign by Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home at the weekend he explains how it was only when Osborne starkly relayed this message to Cameron that he properly got it.
And once the brakes were off I have been told that Osborne then put a bit of stick about (to coin an Urquhartism) within the No campaign making it clear that they had to pull out all the stops to win. His interventions during the latter part of the campaign will doubtless have been music to the ears of many Tory activists too.
Allied to this is the fact that he is a Chancellor that is responsible for the biggest spending cuts this country seen in modern times and yet the public does not seem to want to blame him for them. Some deft political footwork (and a bit of luck - always important for a putative leader) has led to the Lib Dems getting the lion's share of the blame. Witness how it is Danny Alexander who ends up going onto the media regularly to defend Treasury decisions, not Osborne.
When you weigh up the fact that the Tory base are very happy with his performance, coupled with his behind the scenes successes during the last few weeks of campaigning it becomes more and more clear that at the moment at least there is no serious alternative challenger for the Tory leadership. Hague does not seem to want it and there are no other obvious contenders. Were Cameron to fall under the proverbial bus tomorrow I suspect Osborne would walk it.
But longer term Osborne is in a great position too. It is often assumed that the retention of FPTP and the boundary changes will benefit Cameron. And indeed they will to an extent, but they will equally benefit his successor, perhaps more so. I think it is quite likely that Cameron will step down during the next parliament. As I recall he has hinted that may well happen. The Tories are likely to still be in government after the next general election if the economy comes good before 2015. And of course if the economy comes good it will be Osborne who will get the lion's share of the credit, you can bet on it.
Had AV passed, a Tory majority (or even coalition or minority) government would have been a fair bit less likely after 2015. No wonder Osborne felt the need to get involved!
A lot can happen over the next four years and none of what I have said above is guaranteed. But Osborne's star is rising rapidly. If events pan out for him we could well find our next Prime Minister is another Chancellor who used careful behind the scenes manoeuvring to win the ultimate crown.