Julius Caesar is popularly remembered for two reasons. First, as a master tactician, militarily and politically. In battle he was courageous to the point of recklessness and in the Senate, loyal to his confidants. As Suetonius recalls, even “having gained supreme power, he raised some of his friends, even men of humble birth, to high office and brushed aside criticism by saying, ‘If bandits and cutthroats had helped to defend my honour, I should have shown them gratitude in the same way.’” In doing so Caesar built a powerful support base, a network of associates and colleagues on whom he could rely. Second, he was assassinated in an act of regicide that still enthralls.
George Osborne’s grip on the Conservative Party is nothing if not Caesar-like. More than any other Secretary of State in living memory he has gone out of his way to build support among his backbenchers, inviting every new Tory MP for dinner at Number 11. He has also raised those he trusts to positions of importance. Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Nicky Morgan are but three Osbornites who sit around the Cabinet table.
Famously, his approach to politics is built around trapping his enemies. His Budgets are routinely littered with traps to snare Labour rabbits and sew division among the opposition. This approach has won him plaudits from friend and foe alike. Though some in Whitehall dislike his methods it is difficult to question their effectiveness and it is little surprise that he is the bookie’s favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party.
Yet all is not rosy for the Chancellor. The fallout from the tax credits debacle continues with many speculating that Osborne will be forced to introduce contingencies in the Autumn Statement. His reputation as a grand strategist has been damaged and the momentum he has picked up since the General Election halted. His obstinacy in the face of criticism from colleagues, friends and Tory grandees has undoubtedly placed a black mark over his political judgement.
Questions are being raised as to his popularity beyond the corridors of power, and with good reason. His net approval ratings remain in the single digits and he is identified as lacking the personal touch needed to engage the electorate. Michael Howard famously had “something of the night about him” and Osborne has similarly been identified as distant, calculating and cold.
Osborne’s difficulties provide ample opportunity for his rivals to steal a march and bolster their leadership credentials. Theresa May is shaping a populist platform with immigration at its heart. Unlike the liberal Chancellor, she is pushing for tighter borders and perhaps even Brexit. The aforementioned Morgan and Javid are also potentially suitors, though whether they have the public profile to take on Osborne remains in doubt.
The one figure who looms largest behind the curtain and who has both the resources and ambition to play the part of Brutus is Boris Johnson. Having found himself the butt of the Chancellor’s jokes on his return to the Commons, Johnson will no doubt be delighted with his growing esteem among colleagues and activists alike. Although something of a faction unto himself, Johnson’s public profile and popularity is such that one Tory MP has referred to him as “the Heineken candidate – he refreshes the parts that others can’t reach.”
From David Davis to David Miliband and Andy Burnham, British politics is littered with stories of failure snatched from the jaws of victory. If George Osborne is to avoid joining this illustrious list it may not be enough to scheme and schmooze in Westminster. Likewise his competitors will need to step into the breach and assert themselves more forcefully. The Chancellor remains the favourite to succeed David Cameron, but, as Caesar’s murder demonstrates, leaders at the height of their power are far from invulnerable to plots most deadly.