By 2020, David Cameron is going to stand down as prime minister and the Conservative party will hold a leadership election. It’ll be an all-star contest too. The likely candidates include George Osborne, with at least six years as chancellor under his belt; Theresa May, the longest serving home secretary of the last 120 years; and Boris Johnson, London’s mayor of eight years. It puts Labour’s 2015 leadership contest to shame.
Of this bunch, Cameron’s heir apparent is long-time ally George Osborne. The chancellor has been steadily building his power base ready for the day when Cameron steps down. But his spot on the wall at No 10 is not guaranteed – indeed, as the latest Times/YouGov polling shows, Osborne would lose a general election against Jeremy Corbyn (and we all know how the Tories feel about leaders who might lose elections). Here are a few things we will need to bear in mind when considering the likelihood of Prime Minister Osborne.
1. Being chancellor is a powerful advantage
For any prospective prime minister, the chancellorship is the most successful springboard. Indeed, since the beginning of the twentieth century more prime ministers have been chancellors of the exchequer (10) than leaders of the opposition (9).
The other great offices of state aren’t nearly as helpful – five foreign secretaries have gone on to PM, and Theresa May will be upset to hear that just three former home secretaries have become PM (none of whom received the direct promotion).
2. Osborne has bounced back before…
George Osborne’s stock is fairly low at the moment after March’s disastrous budget. But he’s been here before. After the “Omnishambles Budget” of 2012, Osborne’s approval ratings as chancellor slumped to just 28 per cent – almost exactly the same level as now.
Osborne’s ratings languished there for another year before shooting up to 47 per cent in April 2014. Even as late as February this year, those ratings were still at 40 per cent. These ratings are decidedly healthy – Gordon Brown had an approval rate of 32 per cent two months before becoming PM, and John Major’s last rating before getting the top job was 39 per cent.
If Osborne can match this level of recovery once again, that means he will be back on top form in 2018-19 – about the time we would expect the Conservative leadership election to take place.
3. …but he’s got a long way to go with those who will actually decide the next leader
Osborne’s parliamentary caucus is probably the strongest of any politician’s for quite some time. His presence in the top two leadership candidates chosen by Conservative MPs is highly likely.
At that point, however, the decision goes to the Conservative party membership. Osborne’s situation here is much more precarious. In ConservativeHome polling of party members, support for Osborne over the last four years has been in single digits.
If Osborne’s numbers were initially low because of the 2012 budget, they took much longer to recover among party members than they did the general public. Boris, meanwhile, has been consistently riding high.
4. Osborne needs to keep Boris out of the final vote
In February YouGov polled Conservative party members on who they would choose for leader in a series of head-to-head contests involving George Osborne vs Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan.
Osborne is victorious in three of the four contests, but is utterly trounced by Boris (who is, incidentally, the only Leave candidate listed). As things currently stand, if Boris and Osborne square off for the membership vote it’ll be PM BoJo.
The only way Osborne stands a chance is if he can prevent Boris from making the final two candidates in the Conservative MPs vote. To that end, the chancellor can use the large parliamentary following he has been cultivating to his advantage. If Osborne can allocate MPs efficiently enough to push another candidate above Boris in the stakes, while remaining in the top two himself, he can deny the mayor the crown he so badly seeks.
There is precedent for such a strategy. In the 2005 leadership election, both the Liam Fox and David Cameron campaign teams felt that Fox would prove harder for Cameron to defeat in the final round than David Davis. Team Fox became convinced that Team Cameron was encouraging MPs to vote tactically in order to keep Fox out of the final two. In the end, Fox missed out on the final round by six votes, with Cameron’s campaign team admitting their guy had “secured five or six fewer votes than expected”. And who was the head of the Cameron campaign during that election? None other than one George Osborne.
5. Ascending to the throne isn’t as good as being elected to it
Having reached the top, Osborne may well find that he is able to do much less with the role than he wanted. The average term of office for prime ministers who have ascended to the premiership due to their predecessor standing down is just 3 years and 87 days. This figure is less than half that for those prime ministers that first won the post through a general election, who served for an average of 6 years and 191 days.
Successor prime ministers may be at a disadvantage as their governments will not begin with a clean slate and any of the good will and energy that goes with it, instead being bogged down with problems left by their predecessor. Nor will they will have faced proper electoral scrutiny, potentially resulting in prime ministers who are unsuited to the task of winning the next election.
Perhaps this is why Osborne is so keen to have cleared the deficit by 2020 – so he can get it out of the way before he takes the helm and has a clear run at a more spending-happy approach to government. Whatever the reason, it’s a high-risk strategy and he should know that the chalice he seeks will be, if not poisoned, at least tainted.