The MT Interview: George Osborne

In their hubris, the Brown gang ridiculed the Shadow Chancellor's youth in 2005. But the boy done good playing a blinder on inheritance tax and the jibes have faded away. As Labour flounders, his challenge is to rise above the scrummage for the long view of electoral victory.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's an odd business, politics. Far odder than business. And in opposition things are even stranger. Living in a parallel world, shadowing, pretending. This is what struck me as I wandered over Westminster Bridge for my two o'clock appointment with George Osborne MP, the man who would be Chancellor.

And here he is in his office overlooking the Thames next to Portcullis House, bending all his energies to achieve what we must assume is his heart-felt wish to be the next occupant of Number 11. It just seems an odd thing to wish to be doing at the moment. For 10 years the job was a good sinecure - keeping a firm hand on the tiller of a healthy, growing economy - but since the deadly summer of 2007, being Chancellor has looked quite the grimmest role in British politics. Never mind the notorious Home Office, boneyard of so many political careers, or the permanent nightmare at Health ... either looks like a bowl of cherries beside C of E.

During the past six months the incumbent, Alistair Darling (who couldn't get any greyer if he tried) has been hosed down by a non-stop torrent of calamity, humiliation, cock-up and ridicule. (Mr Bean next door at Number 10 has looked no less wretched. More of him later.) And, if we're being honest, all this has befallen Darling without much of it being directly attributable to him personally. He didn't fecklessly mislay the HMRC discs. Neither was he directly behind the steering wheel during the multiple pile-up that is Northern Rock. Not much he could have done about the convulsions on the global markets and the general downturn. Maybe the capital gains tax muddle and U-turn was a foul-up of his own making but, nevertheless, Darling's recent track record looks like Alan Bennet's definition of history: 'It's just one f**king thing after another.'

So, George, do you really want to be there? Being Chancellor looks like trying to keep the notes in the till when there's a hurricane blowing through the shop. A brief - very brief - smile. 'Look, of course I want to be Chancellor of the Exchequer,' he replies, playing a straight bat. 'Of course there are tricky economic conditions globally at the moment, with turbulence and uncertainty ... But they're the sorts of things that make politics what it is - difficult problems and long-term challenges. I'm well aware that, as Chancellor, you don't get an easy ride.'

There's little else Osborne could answer but along these lines. He is a politician, after all. But for the first time in ages it actually looks easier to be in opposition than in power: all one has to do is sit and watch as the New Labour machine hits the black ice. What's certain is that the wheels have locked up and then come off Brown's bus.

Last summer, the Tories were looking as far away from power as ever, still stumbling about in No Man's Land. As the PM enjoyed his brief honeymoon in the top job he'd craved for so long, there were murky rumours that the cocky Osborne would be axed in favour of William Hague. So, the speed of the subsequent Conservative reversal of fortune is quite something.

'Things have fallen apart pretty quickly for them,' agrees Osborne, sitting slightly awkwardly on his office sofa. The furnishings and bric-a-brac give little away: two cycling helmets and a laddered Paul Smith tie on the coatstand, his Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year award, a set of Top Trumps plus a bottle (unopened) of Rioja. 'But there's a long way to go until the next election. We're not complacent.

'Labour's problems are due to their fundamental political, ideological foundations. Gordon Brown is trying to claim he's the new thing on the block, a big change from Blair. But he's been there for 10 years, writing the cheques. Their answers to the current problems are still the wrong ones - they think in a world of fierce international competition that the answer is an ever-increasing tax burden, increasing the size of government and more Whitehall interference in business. That's the wrong direction.'

Brown and his cabinet colleagues were savage and merciless in their ridicule of the young pretender Osborne when he first got his Shadow Chancellor's job in 2005. They took the rise out of his light tenor voice, which can seem a bit 4th-form when under pressure. One Brown aide dismissed him with: 'You can't invite George Osborne to dinner - he'll be tucked up in bed by then. Why not invite him on a playdate?'

Osborne described Brown as 'brutal' and 'unpleasant' and in the Commons was rebuked by the Speaker for predicting the Scot would be an 'effing awful' prime minister. Osborne also let it be known that Brown is the only person ever to hang the phone up on him. As Blair departed there was more unpleasantly violent talk about young Tory toffs tasting Brown's iron fist.

Osborne hasn't forgotten this. His skin may have thickened and he may now be taken with far greater seriousness, but it was clearly pretty nasty. 'I was 33 when I took the job. I was up against Gordon Brown, who'd been in his job for 10 years and has seen off six of my predecessors. We were a bit like second lieutenants on the Western Front in terms of life expectancy.' And Osborne's party was, at that stage, 22 points behind its opponent on economic competence in the polls, so he was fighting for his political life.

These days, the youth issue doesn't look so bad - 36 is acceptable and, if anything, he looks older. And with 41-year-old Clegg over at the Lib Dems, Brown looks like a throwback from another era. From the start, there were elements of positive coverage because Osborne was different from the incumbents. 'It's true that Mr Osborne is from a different generation to Brown, Blair and David Davis,' cooed two (female) co-profilers in the Telegraph. 'He wears Gap T-shirts, eats burgers in front of The Sopranos and has a poster signed by Tracey Emin. Last week he skipped PMQs to watch his four-year-old son in his nursery play. "He played a cow and a very good cow he was, too."'

There's a contrast between the two operations - government and opposition - that goes beyond that of being the Real Thing and its Shadow. There's something attractively breezy but businesslike about Osborne and his bushy-tailed young team, all of whom MT found very nice. The reverse of the dour, leaden operation run by the misery-guts son of the manse with the awkward smile. Osborne, they say, is riotously funny when he gets going, his Tony Blair impersonation up there with Rory Bremner's.

It's a mark of the stark difference between the two camps that it wasn't until about 20 minutes before the interview that I received a call from a nice young woman called Polly asking what it was I'd like to talk about. Imagine the New Labour machine leaving that much to chance. MT would have been quizzed about our intentions, I'd have had my CV and clips pored over for days to sniff out any signs that I wasn't 'one of us'.

Indeed, as one MT contributor on the receiving end of Brown's legendary control-freakery says: 'I doubt whether Gordon has permitted himself to go into any meeting in the last 20 years where he hasn't made entirely sure beforehand what the outcome of that meeting has to be.'

I tell Osborne this anecdote and there's another brief smile, but we're not through the carapace yet. So, let's talk about capital gains tax. Darling's proposed hike for CGT announced in his Pre-Budget statement back in October was met with howls of disapproval from all corners, so noisy that he'd been sent back to think again.

'This was an 80% increase in taxes on entrepreneurs,' says Osborne, 'and it's a classic example of losing touch with the business community. It wasn't a simplification, it was a tax increase. And the result is that hundreds of thousands of small-business people are now in the dark wondering whether to sell up before April.'

But wasn't Darling trying to do something in response to the unease surrounding those in PE and elsewhere famously paying lower rates of tax than their cleaning ladies? 'If they were really worried about carried interest in PE deals you could deal with that in a specific way. You don't need a sledgehammer to crack a nut.'

And anyway, he suggests, any chancellor will have to put out far more traps to ensnare the PE boys into paying their fair share of tax. 'No. He's a weak chancellor, dominated by Number 10.'

By contrast, Osborne's suggestions on inheritance tax were a minor bit of political genius. IHT wasn't on anyone's agenda apart from that of greying probate lawyers. Suddenly, Osborne came up with the suggestion that it was jolly unfair taxing income that had already been taxed once and it should rightfully go to the dearly departed's heirs. And what with so many houses in middle England now worth so much, the IHT threshold should be substantially raised ... It was such a good idea that the Government stole it.

Osborne was born in 1971 to Sir Peter Osborne and his wife Felicity Loxton-Peacock. He may have attended St Paul's School in Barnes and then Oxford, but it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a flop-haired son of landed aristocrats. The Osbornes are mercantile, metropolitan and rather interesting - not cannon fodder from the shires.

As a family, they were into politics - or 'current affairs', as Osborne likes to say. But his mother was no Tory: she went on anti-Vietnam marches, worked for Amnesty International and was a highly trendy King's Road habitue in the '60s. Sir Peter's own father had been in the Army, but in what must have been a minor act of rebellion decided to start up his own wallpaper and fabrics business in 1968, Osborne & Little.

Osborne has spoken little about his parents' business in previous interviews. Publicly voiced pride in family business success may not be a vote-winner in modern Britain, but it's the one subject about which he speaks with genuine warmth. 'I'm immensely proud of what my dad did. He built it up from nothing - of course, he came from a good background - with his partner. It was a risky decision for him and an unusual move because his father was an Army officer. He grew it over 30 years and it's been a part of my family for the whole of my life. I was always aware as a child when things were going well and when things weren't going so well, so it's given me a strong understanding of what's involved in running a business - the risks, the hard work and the commitment. I remember it being floated and then dad buying it back again.'

Philip Beresford, the compiler of MT's Top 100 entrepreneurs list, says of Osborne & Little: 'In 2005-06 it ended three years of losses with a mouth-watering £5.9m profit on near £27m sales. In 2006-07 profit fell to £1.7m. It seems that Sir Peter and his wife own around 82% of the new parent company and I assume Sir Peter is the highest-paid director; he took a £398,000 salary in that year. He lives on the fringe of Holland Park (London), so a £5m home, £20m for family in all at an estimate, with any inherited money and trust funds.' So plenty of inheritance tax when the time comes there, then.

George is the oldest of four boys. His younger siblings are, variously, an NHS psychiatrist working in Manchester who got caught up in the online job application fiasco; a graphic designer plying his trade in the States; and one who may well go into the family business. Sir Peter, apparently, says he always knew George would be the only one of his kids to wind up wearing a tie for a living (although the Tories are frequently more open-necked in public these days).

A lot has been made of Osborne's decision to change his name, aged 13. He was known as Gideon but got fed up with it and elected to be called George from then on. Some commentators have seen something sinister in this; one thought it indicative of 'a thinner skin and lower self-esteem than might be considered desirable in politics'. But what if his unusual handle led to teasing? You could say it took some courage to tell the world you are renaming yourself.

Osborne's observation on the episode - recalled elsewhere - is straightforward: 'It was my small act of rebellion. I never liked it. When I finally told my mother she said: "Nor do I." So I decided to be George after my grandfather, who was a war hero. (He won the Military Cross in the Great War.) Life was easier as a George; it was a straightforward name.'

So on the subject of WWI and mindless carnage, what about Northern Rock? Osborne has landed some painful blows on Darling and performed well in the Commons on the subject. Sceptics question whether it would really have been possible to have seen the disaster coming and thus avert it, but that isn't the point. It's a political problem that requires solving.

Did Osborne think it was avoidable? 'Well we don't know enough about what happened. But what we do know is that a regulatory system designed to stop people queuing round the block to take their money out of banks failed and we've had the first run on a bank in 140 years. It's clear that the authorities knew for a month between mid-August and mid-September that it was in trouble. The real questions are, firstly, why they failed to sell it when an offer came from a major retail bank (Lloyds TSB) and why they did not move immediately to sell it.

'All the while this goes on, this is hugely damaging to the UK's reputation. I've met three US bankers in the last week, all of whom said that this will seriously damage the City's reputation as a leading world provider of financial services.'

He has some reasonable points here, but it's a bit rich for US bankers to claim they are worried about our shortcomings when they've been guilty of such shenanigans in their own back yard. He is right, though, when he says that with Northern Rock 'there are no happy outcomes'.

Although his profile is now growing, there are those who remain vexed about quite what sort of a Tory, or indeed what sort of a politician, Osborne is. One profile was headed 'The Accidental Politician'; another, more subtly, 'Kind of Blue'. The anti-camp says he's a naked and ambitious opportunist. Some say he's the Svengali of the Tory party, the one Cameron really listens to, and that this is clearly a crucial relationship, as was the fractious equivalent between Blair and Brown. The pair are godparents to each other's children and the line is that you couldn't get a fag-paper between them. We shall see.

It's true that Osborne had no student interest in party politics. He didn't bother with the Oxford Union, preferring to edit Isis. After university, he was shortlisted for a journalist's job at The Times but fell at the last hurdle. Someone suggested he try joining the Conservatives.

'I sort of fell into it. I certainly never planned my political career on the back of an envelope - and you can put that in as well' (a gentle dig at MT's proprietor, Lord Heseltine). He has been accused of lacking any coherent ideology and doesn't deny this. So what does he believe in?

'I'm a future-looking person,' he says. 'I mistrust ideologies based on the past. I'm a Conservative who believes that individuals are usually in a better position to make decisions about their lives than government. The same applies to business. I'm very sceptical of politicians who think you can reduce the complexity of life to 10-point plans. You take your principles and engage them with each problem you face in life.' That sounds quite pragmatic to me.

Nor is he willing to sacrifice everything for his political ends, and he says he makes every effort to switch off from politics when he gets home. Osborne has two small kids, aged 4 and 6, and values his time with them. (He was off to watch Chelsea with his son the weekend after we meet.) He refuses all weekend political engagements if possible. He groans when I mention the demands of Sunday political TV - 'What a misery: I'd happily abolish that.' Osborne's wife Frances, the daughter of Conservative cabinet minister David Howell, has written a novel, Lilla's Feast: A true story of love, war and a passion for food.

He's clearly liberal on social issues and even once suggested the royal family should pay rent on Kensington Palace. So, unlike Mrs Thatcher, does he believe in Society? 'Well, she was much misquoted on that. I think both I and the modern Conservative party understand that as well as quantity-of-money there are quality-of-life issues. People care about budgets, but they also care deeply about schools, hospitals and crime.'

He certainly believes that business should believe in Society. And this has alarmed some in the business community. Business has been largely happy with Labour since 1997 and some of the noises, coming from Cameron especially, have got them worried. 'We took it for granted that we were their party,' says Osborne. 'That was a mistake. But I still have the same message which two years ago not everyone liked - on climate change and the strength of society, business has a big role to play. We got some push-back on this, but the most successful companies I meet are those that are more aware of their broader responsibilities. If business doesn't engage, then government will regulate and come in top-down with a heavy fist. We say: "Don't look to government to regulate - do it yourselves."'

On the subject of regulation, Osborne is one of 80 Tory MPs who have been referred to the Electoral Committee by Labour for allegedly failing to declare donations in the correct way.

The relations with business have improved, as CBI boss Richard Lambert agrees. He confirms that that were anxieties that Osborne's Tories were sympathetic to small enterprise but quite hostile to corporates. 'I think they are energetically talking to business now, successfully putting themselves about,' says Lambert. 'And they are in a much better place than they were. But we're still waiting for the final repositioning.' He mentions planning law reform, about which business feels strongly and the Conservatives are undecided. But on a personal level Lambert, seems happy. 'Osborne's an impressive chap, quick and clever, and understands the things he needs to.'

So, nearing mid-term, they are doing far better, but Osborne isn't getting carried away. 'Look, I've had a great couple of months, but if you let that go to your head you are sunk. I learned working with William Hague to keep a level head. When things get really tough you don't let them get you down: maintain an even temperament. Just keep focused, not on the rough-and-tumble of politics but on the long-term goals you wish to achieve. Although I'm attacking Darling on the Rock, the discs and CGT, the real job is to make sure this country has a decent alternative at the next election.'

A year ago that looked like the most fanciful of pipedreams. It's not the case any longer.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING OSBORNE

1. To come up with more original, realistically fundable and vote-winning changes to the tax system before the next election

2. To allow no wedge to be driven between him and his boss

3. To persuade UK business that he's on their side and isn't a militant Green who'd tie firms up in many-stranded eco-taxes

4. Not to crow too unsportingly if the Brown regime implodes

OSBORNE IN A MINUTE
1971: Born in London. Educated at St Paul's School, Barnes, and Magdalen
College, Oxford
1994: Joined Conservative research department
1995: Special adviser to MAFF in the BSE crisis
1997: Political Office, 10 Downing Street
1997-2001: William Hague's political secretary
2001: Elected MP for Tatton
2003: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
2005: Shadow Chancellor

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