The Tories need a new Darling

It’s becoming more obvious now. The wayward curls, the sagging jowls, the general air of world-weariness and dogged determination. Just as animals and their owners grow to resemble each other, so George Osborne is slowly morphing into the man he most loathes in British politics, Gordon Brown.

But the emerging physical similarities are where comparisons between Brown and Osborne end. Unlike most of his predecessors, Gordon managed to seamlessly move from Number 11 to Number 10. Osborne, exposed as less fleet of foot in recent times, looks increasingly like he will be forced from office amid the utter collapse of his economic policy as we sink back into recession.

All of which presents an interesting dilemma for the government. In order to restore their credentials on the economy when ‘Osbornomics’ becomes so discredited that even Michael Fallon refuses to take to the airwaves to defend it, the government will need a new salesman to flog its new economic direction.

With his dilettantism, Osborne is the wrong man to convince the public that the government is doing everything it can to protect jobs and resuscitate the economy. A fact brought home in this week’s YouGov poll which shows Labour and the Tories now level-pegging on economic competence.

He is too busy plotting and scheming in David Cameron’s outer office. Hence the disastrous fall-out from his budget, which has littered the political battlefield with pieces of unexploded ordinance in the shape of weird and wonderful new taxes on everything from grannies to pasties while the super-rich get a free ride.

The furore will not destroy him – mostly the reaction has been mocking – but his political reputation, not least in his own party, now has an ugly piece of shrapnel sticking out if it. He should, literally, have stuck to the day job.

A new chancellor is needed; one who combines a carefully-calibrated optimism about the future with a sense of diligence, application and quiet authority. In short, everything Osborne does not. What the government needs, in effect, is a Tory version of Alistair Darling. Someone unexciting, unflappable, dependable and straight.

Darling’s very unfashionableness is, in these straitened times, curiously fashionable.  And politically necessary too as the Tories continue to slither down the polls and need to show that a grown-up is in charge.

But where to look? The least dramatic move would see William Hague and Osborne switch jobs. Hague is a familiar face and certainly smart enough, but his very familiarity is a drawback. The government needs a ‘clean skin’. Someone newish, not too political and not hopelessly associated with the past.

The smart choice would be Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond. As shadow chief secretary to the Treasury in the run-up to the last election he always outshone his boss. He knows his stuff and his measured tone exudes competence and assurance. Was he out on manoeuvres the other day when he drifted well off his brief to duff up “whinging” captains of industry who should be investing in productive capacity rather than hoarding cash?

A more leftfield option would be Transport Secretary Justine Greening. She is becoming quietly effective as a pourer of oil on troubled waters and a general purveyor of common sense. Her Rotherham background makes her an effective antidote to the government’s posh, southern, male cabal. Relatively speaking, she’s more working men’s club than Bullingdon club. And as a former Treasury minister with a professional background in finance, she has the grounding.

What the government does next on the economy will set the seal on this parliament. Simply hoping things eventually get better risks a backlash by voters who see “posh boys” (C. Nadine Dorries MP) unmoved by their plight. Ministers must show, as Gordon Brown did during 2008, that they are stretching every sinew to boost growth.

And Mr. Osborne would do well to remember his predecessor’s Golden Rule. No not that one; his other one – his prescient half-jest that there are only two kinds of Chancellor of the Exchequer: those who fail in office and those who get out in time.

Jump soon George, your house of cards is tumbling down.

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