Laws of political gravity and George Osborne

Former chancellor George Osborne is set to be a thorn in the side of the prime minister for some time to come.

While UK political parties lie in disarray, Julian Francis uses the laws of political gravity to uncover who is the leader of the opposition in the current government.

After months of waiting, speeches, and media speculation, the contest is finally over and we have the results. At last, the country knows who the leader of the opposition is, but this may not be who you think it is. 

If you think it is Jeremy Corbyn then you can be forgiven for not knowing the second law of political gravity. 

The first law is simple and straightforward, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - simply put, all government action will create opposition. If the opposition does not come from the other primary political party then the second law of political gravity kicks in. If the rival party fails to provide effective opposition then opposition will arise within the government’s own party. 

This pattern has been repeated several times in the last few decades when either Labour of the Conservatives have failed to effectively oppose government policy. Whether it was Heseltine rising to challenge Thatcher, or Brown challenging Blair the iron rule of political gravity always asserts itself and now is no exception. With the Labour Party unable to hold the government to account in the House of Commons, a challenger to the prime minister has arisen on her own back benches, which could complicate her life considerably.

His name is George Osborne.

For a couple of months now Theresa May has had the field all to herself and she has sought to put her stamp on the government and the Conservative Party. As part of this process she has sought to distance herself from or downgrade in importance key parts of the Cameron government that she did not agree with. Ostensibly this was an attack on the legacy of David Cameron and George Osborne, but it went further than that as it impacted every member of the last government who has not found a place in the new government. For want of any better terms, this has meant that former Cameroons have been ousted by Mayites and find themselves on the cold side of the prime minister.

This would not necessarily have been a problem for the PM as she could rely on party discipline in the face of Labour opposition to keep the troops in line, but sadly up until now Labour is not living up to its end of the bargain. With the official opposition bitterly divided amongst itself there has been a loosening of tension on the Conservative benches that has enabled the Cameroons to regroup and begin to oppose the government. 

With the resignation of David Cameron, it has fallen to his political partner George Osborne to defend their legacy in government. Firstly, he founded the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to help maintain the momentum of the flagship initiative and boost the prosperity of the north. This was a policy that the former chancellor was most associated with and one that the new prime minister has not shown much enthusiasm for, preferring to have a UK-wide industrial strategy rather than a regionally specific one. 

This sets the two protagonists up for a classic Manichean conflict that places a northern MP and the North of England against a southern prime minister, London and the south east. Surely this would be fertile ground for Jeremy Corbyn to exploit given his party’s strength in the region, and it will be interesting to see how Andy Burnham fares if and when he becomes Greater Manchester mayor, but rather it just highlights how far the Labour Party has fallen that a Conservative grandee has taken up the mantel as defender of the north.    

Secondly, Osborne made it very clear that he was not going anywhere and would not be resigning from Parliament, far from it. He would seek to contest the next election despite his current seat facing the axe in the boundary review. George Osborne thus signaled to his supporters that he was not going anywhere but was in this fight for the long haul. This assurance of stability further increases the gravitational pull of Osborne for the disaffected. After all, who will risk their political career for someone who may not stick around to reward you for your efforts?

Thirdly, Osborne hit out at the prime minister’s policy of reintroducing grammar schools and inflicted the first wound of the conflict. In a party that is split over the issue of grammar schools, Osborne put himself forward as a leader who would champion good schools for all rather than the elites. With a carefully worded statement specifying the need to focus on the education chances of the 80% who can’t opt out of the state system, he painted the upper working class grammar school girl as privileged, while ensuring that the public school boy was seen on the side of the people. Many of Cameron’s supporters see the party’s record on education in the last five years as a real achievement and one to be preserved.

Finally, Osborne has positioned himself as the leader of the remainers who are seriously concerned with how the government will implement Brexit. Arguing that Britain should seek the softest of soft exits, Osborne has positioned himself as the champion of the status quo and reassurance for many in the party who are concerned with a post EU future.

Although we are still in the very early days of the May government and all the best cards still sit in her hands, George Osborne has signaled that he is a force to be reckoned with and the prime minister would be foolish to ignore the threat he represents. After all, it positions the agile political maneuverer against the measured thoughtful politician. Osborne will likely force the PM to enter into debates or make decisions before she is ready. But with this he must remember that she beat him once and could do so again. 

Watch out for a subtle shift in governmental policy to bring more of the Cameron legacy under the wing of the prime minister in the coming months.  

Julian Francis is director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.