When the Wonkhe Power List board met in the summer, we began by writing the names of last year’s List on post-its and placing them on a window, before the removing those we thought no longer justified a place. The first to be defenestrated was the man who was top of last year’s list: former chancellor George Osborne.
Osborne’s place at the top of last year’s list was a reflection of his personal power in the Cameron governments, as chief executive to the prime minister’s chairman. But it also showed the extent to which his intellectual and political philosophy had reached beyond the walls of the Treasury and to all areas of public life, including higher education.
In a pamphlet released last October by the left-leaning pressure-group Compass, Professor Ken Spours of the UCL IoE described the new ‘Osborne Supremacy’ in UK politics. Spours wrote that Osborne was “undoubtedly the current leading strategist of the new Conservative hegemony”, and argued that the Cameron-Osborne election victory, built upon a vindication of austerity economics as an “organising principle” that was now accepted “common sense”, had achieved a Gramscian dominance over British politics. Osborne’s particular brand of free-market austerity economics, social and civic liberalism, combined with targeted social reforms, had laid waste to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in England and claimed the hallowed centre ground.
The Chancellor became notorious for skilfully played politics with his symbolic ‘welfare cap’ and ‘budget surplus laws’ to exploit Labour’s divisions. He used legislation and budget announcements to create a political narrative about the opposition that would render them unelectable. He showed sleights of hand with budgeting to ensure that the worst of austerity was felt long before the general election and subtly found ways to boost economic growth just in the run-up to May 2015.
At the time Spour’s pamphlet was published, Osborne was the odds-on favourite to become the next Prime Minister. The chancellor was craftily finding himself plenty of air-time, currying favours with Tory backbenchers, and aspiring to present himself as the ‘natural’ guardian of Cameron’s electoral success. Yet even before the EU referendum cracks were beginning to appear, and Osborne appeared to have overreached. Osborne successively suffered a u-turn on tax credit cuts, bad press over a tax deal with Google, embarrassment over ‘full-academisation’ of schools (remarkably announced in the Budget), and finally provoked the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith over cuts to disability benefits.
The strange and sudden unravelling of the ‘Osborne Supremacy’ in the wake of Brexit shows how supposedly dominant blocs of political power can be far more vulnerable than they at first appear. Brexit didn’t just cost Osborne his job and his hopes of promotion to the very top, but has also ruined his particular ideological and political legacy. Following Brexit, the UK’s AAA credit rating was downgraded, the avoidance of which was the entire purpose of Osborne’s economic creed.
Osborne had ruined his reputation (and by extension that of his clique) amongst Tory Brexiteers for his desperate warnings about a ‘punishment budget’ after a Leave vote. He now cuts a lonely figure on the backbenches, ungraciously sacked on Theresa May’s first day in charge. His Northern Powerhouse has been conspicuously abandoned, and his fiscal targets look set also to be dropped.
What George Osborne does next is no longer of much interest. Perhaps more interesting is how Theresa May’s brand of conservatism will seek to command the ‘common sense’ narrative in the way Osborne’s once did. The political landscape is ripe, with Labour well behind in the polls and struggling to retain credibility with the wider public. May is now looking similarly hegemonic as Osborne once did, if not more so.
The new PM will need an organising principle similar to ‘common-sense austerity’ and ‘long-term economic plan’, but is hamstrung by the dangers of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’ is already running out of steam). If she does not, and Labour get their act together, her own present supremacy may go the way of the former chancellor’s.