George Osborne: extreme pragmatism or extremist?

Janan Ganesh’s biography of George Osborne, now out in a slightly expanded paperback edition, has been rightly praised for its style, research and sharp analysis. And yet, and yet… at the end of reading it I still feel a big disjuncture between the the George Osborne in the book and the George Osborne who wants to cut public spending massively further without a penny of tax rises after 2015.

George Osborne by Janan GaneshGanesh is sympathetic to Osborne without ever being sycophantic and unsurprisingly paints a much kinder picture of him that Labour politicians do. That’s not the puzzle, however.

The puzzle is that Ganesh’s picture is one of an arch-pragmatist, someone who is a centrist who could easily have ended up in New Labour: “The Tory party was, ultimately, a default recourse for a broadly centrist budding politico at a time when Labour was unelectably left-wing. Had Osborne been born a decade later and grown up in the mid-1990s, he might now be a Blairite MP striving to catch Ed Miliband’s eye for a frontbench promotion”.

Moreover, in Ganesh’s account Osborne’s initial political experiences confirmed his centrist, pragmatic approach: “In the period between Britain’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992 and the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as Leader of the Opposition in 2003 … the Tories were a bitterly riven and splenetically detested party… Osborne was there for almost all of this period…. His time as a back-room adviser was an unremittingly brutal education that shaped the politician he became: pugilistic, averse to vote-losing ideology and almost neurotically fixated on public opinion”.

Yet look at Osborne’s tax and spend plans for a 2015-2020 Conservative government and they seem a long way away from this. How to explain this? Has Osborne tripped himself up with his enthusiasm for political games and attempts to set traps for other parties, backing himself into such an extreme ‘no tax increases’ position (and a dangerous one too given the likelihood of a hung Parliament requiring any Conservative Chancellor to abandon that line with just as much political risk as when the first President George Bush abandoned his ‘read my lips – no new taxes pledge)? That certainly fits with Osborne’s baseline view of politics – that what a government sets out as its future fiscal policies is what the policies of the opposition get judged against and therefore boxes them in.

Or is Ganesh just too kind to Osborne, who is really rather more of an extreme character than the book paints?

There are certainly hints in the book that politics rather than economics dominates Osborne’s outlook, with a habit of picking economic policies for their political impact on opponents: “The bookshelves in Osborne’s Tatton home are dominated by biographies, not works of political theory or economics. The second of his laws of political success … is to get inside an opponent’s mind and soul”.

Ganesh does to an extent put the case both for and against Osborne simply being a pragmatist without deep beliefs, citing Michael Howard’s praise of Osborne for his inner ideological consistency and pointing out how in 2009 Osborne didn’t go for the easy option of sticking with copying Labour’s fiscal policies but instead argued for unpopular austerity, yet also pointing out how many other contemporaries had a different view.

Of course Ganesh also has the classic biographer’s problem when writing a book mid-career. But it all means that in the end the book is rather less than the sum of its excellent parts, for these different views of Osborne are not resolved.


If you like this, you might also be interested in Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin by Damian McBride.

Got a view on this review? Then please rate it on Amazon.

Buy George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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