Does anyone remember when David Cameron referred to William Hague as his deputy “in all but name”?
Mr Cameron made that comment back in 2009, at a time when George Osborne’s position was at something approaching its nadir. Mr Osborne had just been caught up in ‘Yachtgate’ and had admitted accepting a loan from a Russian oligarch. Mr Hague, in contrast, was the former Conservative leader reluctant to return to frontline politics who had been convinced by David Cameron. He was seen as the genuine heavyweight after Mr Cameron and the man most likely to take the step up if Mr Cameron ever decided or was required to take a step down.
Fast forward five years and Mr Osborne is now riding the crest of a wave. He’s presented what a poll in the Evening Standard last week described as the most popular and well received Budget in a generation. His economic policies of austerity are beginning to bear some fruit but at the very least have been accepted by large sections of the electorate. He has countered the criticism of the IMF and OECD. He regularly posts better opinion polls than Ed Balls, his opposite number. And his standing in the Conservative Party is absolute. He is rumoured to have pushed for an end to the Prime Minister’s support for Maria Miller – a story from which he has emerged entirely unscathed despite his seniority and role in Party strategy. And with Boris continuing to vacillate on the subject of whether or not to return to Parliament, it is Team Osborne that now looks the most likely to succeed David Cameron as and when the Prime Minister decides to call it a day.
It’s been a remarkable tale of reputational resurrection that has been clearly thought out and carefully managed. But what’s also clear is that Mr Osborne isn’t done. One of the lead stories in The Times today reports that Mr Osborne is to set out proposals that will allow him to cut taxes despite continued high levels of borrowing. It’s a move that will appeal to the Tory right, but at the same time Mr Osborne is now attempting to outmanoeuvre Ed Balls. This will no doubt be one of many carefully considered announcements by the Chancellor in the coming 12 months as he seeks to consolidate the Tory base while eroding Labour’s economic platform.
The wheels might still come off. But at this point it is George Osborne who is clearly David Cameron’s deputy in all but name.