A bad week for chancellor Osborne

George Osborne

When the Conservatives won the General Election back in May, I predicted that the most likely successor to David Cameron was George Osborne. The Chancellor had masterminded the Tory campaign, won the argument on the economy, and come up with the big idea that is the Northern Powerhouse.

The Labour Party’s decision to the elect Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader then meant that Osborne could look forward to a good run in the top job, as the official opposition seems determined to become a protest group, rather than a credible alternative government, for the foreseeable future.

However, I also warned that as the Conservatives settled into majority government, with the prospect of a decade in office, they faced the danger of becoming careless, complacent and, a charge already often levelled against a number of ministers, arrogant.

Little did I anticipate that this would happen so quickly though; and I would never have imagined the normally sure footed Chancellor as being the first major culprit.

His unexpected announcement of the introduction of a living wage in his first budget statement back in May did have the intended consequence of wrong footing the Labour Party. But the unintended consequence was to totally alienate SME’s who are already facing the challenge of paying for auto enrolment in two years’ time.

Nonetheless, not least through his efforts on the devolution agenda, Osborne appeared to be back on track by the time of his Tory Party conference speech in Manchester last month, following which he was installed as the firm favourite by the bookies to be the next man who would be presented with the keys to number ten.

But, as Harold Wilson famously said, “a week is a long time in politics.”

And the past seven days have been an unmitigated, and wholly unnecessary disaster, for George.

By digging his heels in over a measly £4 billion saving with his plans to reform the tax credits regime, the MP for Tatton not only brought the inevitable avalanche of criticism from the left, but had to sit through excellently presented arguments against his plans from a number of his Tory colleagues, including his nemesis Boris Johnson.

Hitting hard working, low paid families, does not appear to fit in with the Prime Ministers mantra of ‘the workers party’ and so it should have come as little surprise to the government that criticism would be fierce.

What the Chancellor failed to anticipate was the killing of his tax credits plan by the Lords. Emboldened by increasing Tory backbench unrest, public sympathy for tax credits claimants and, crucially, a lack of mention of this unkindest of cut in the Conservative manifesto, the unelected chamber were happy to give ‘the other place’ a bloody nose.

This embarrassing defeat does not mean the Tories will lose the next election. A failure to deliver the planned £4 billion saving does not throw the governments financial objectives off course.

No, what this defeat means is that Osborne goes from looking like a shoo- in for the top job to a man who might yet be beaten.

In polls last week Cameron and Johnson scored healthy leads over Jeremy Corbyn in terms of who people thought would make the best Prime Minister. Interestingly the Chancellor is neck and neck with the leader of the opposition.

This is not where George wanted to be at this early stage of a new parliament. Falling out with the Lords is a bit of a nuisance, but hardly fatal. Disagreeing with a dozen or so of your own backbenchers can be dressed up as you being able to front people up and make tough choices. Losing popularity among the electorate and being seen as level pegging with the most unpopular Labour leader in modern history – now that is a problem, and one Osborne must fix quickly if he is to realise his ambition of becoming PM.