Politxcos: Time for Osborne to go?

25 Jul

Politxcos – an occasional series of mostly whimsy-free serious posts.

Today’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, that UK GDP fell by 0.7% during the second quarter of 2012, makes me question whether or not the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer should be considered in the speculated upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

Whereas conventional political wisdom tells us that George Osborne will most likely remain Chancellor for the foreseeable future, there are calls for his sacking from prominent quarters. The Guardian report that Lord Oakeshott is calling for the implementation of “Plan A-Plus”, whilst suggesting that someone else takes the helm to do so. He may be right to do so.

In saying what I’m about to say, I am reminded of the old apocryphal comment that John Lennon made about Ringo Starr, when asked if he was the best drummer in the world. “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles!”. So is true of George Osborne. If you were to look at the government benches and pick a chancellor from the 360-odd coalition MPs, I’m not convinced that Osborne would get the nod ahead of, say, Ken Clarke (who, as Norman Lamont’s successor as chancellor in the nineties, oversaw Britain’s successful recovery from Black Wednesday), Vince Cable (former chief Economist for Shell), David Laws, Phillip Hammond, hell, even Chris Huhne, just based on their prior history in government and/or finance.

In the interest of fairness, there are far worse people available to the coalition to choose to be Chancellor, and George Osborne does command sufficient respect within the Conservatives to merit his inclusion in the cabinet; not least for his strategic ability without which the Tories would likely not be in power.

Osborne here has two problems, I fear. The first is that, as Lord Oakeshott has said and others will no doubt follow, if a football team or a business continued to return discouraging figures and results over a prolonged period of time, there would be a change of management in order to turn it around. If this does happen, I’d expect to see George Osborne move sideways to an equally prestigious portfolio, be it Home Office, Defence or Health. 

The second problem is perhaps more pressing, but not necessarily fatal. George Osborne, by virtue of having a relatively mono-tonal voice, does not possess the natural ability to sell the economy. Part of the reason that the UK is in recession at the moment is because businesses are still reluctant to spend money where they don’t have to, part of this is due to gloomy economic forecasts, part of that is due to the fact that George finds it difficult to sell the British economy. We need a person in Number 11 who can passionately enthuse the construction industry that everything is going to be fine, so long as they build the houses, hospitals and schools. We need a person in Number 11 who can open up the most tightly clenched fists in the banking industry, and extract the money to lend to SMEs to get the economy growing from the base up. We need a Chancellor who accepts prudence and austerity as a temporary measure, but that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that everything’s going to be ace and top.

That man, for me, is Ken Clarke.

However, I did say that this was not necessarily fatal for George Osborne. What could work is a greater split between the powers of the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Secretary. Danny Alexander is one of the more charismatic Liberal Democrat MPs, and a fine chief secretary. He is also, in my humble opinion, a much better communicator than George, which given his career in public relations ought to be a given. My suggestion is this – keep George Osborne in number 11, let him work on the important business of getting rid of the PSBR/PSDR structural deficit, and upgrade Danny Alexander’s role to one of “Economic Spokesman”, getting him to effectively champion the economy in the media, and to companies up and down the country.

Certainly, something needs to happen. If the trend continues, that the ONS figures are 0.2% below the estimates, then next year the UK will return to 1% growth, right back where the Coalition started in 2010. We’ll have gone nowhere, and we’ll want to avoid that at all costs.

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