October 1 2011; George Osborne: from the Bullingdon club to the heart of government
When George Osborne was 17, he took part in a school debate on nuclear disarmament. He was then an A-level politics student at St Paul’s in London, one of England’s leading public schools. On the day of the debate, a crowd of sixth-formers gathered to listen. Osborne, already perhaps displaying latent right-wing sympathies, was to argue in favour of the nuclear deterrent. On the opposing side, his classmate Sam Bain would put the case for the CND. But as Osborne rose to speak, a rugby teacher came into the classroom to say he was required to play in a match. Osborne rushed out, leaving the notes of his speech behind. “Some guy in the audience read it out and he won pretty unanimously,” recalls Bain now. “So basically, I failed to win a debate against him even though he wasn’t there.”
For Bain the humiliation was not entirely unexpected. Even as an adolescent, Osborne seemed preternaturally composed, somehow older than his contemporaries and with a clear idea of where he was heading and of the kind of person he wanted to become.
“We were 17, and at that point he was grown-up in a way that no one else was in our year,” recalls Bain, who went on to co-create Channel 4’s Peep Show and the new student comedy Fresh Meat. “He looked and behaved like a man who had already decided what he was going to do with his life.”
The story of how that teenager went on to become the youngest chancellor of the exchequer in 120 years is an intriguing one. It contains many surprising elements, including tales of riotous debauchery, allegations of electoral malpractice in student politics and, at one point, an intimate encounter with the pop star Geri Halliwell – more of which later. But in many ways Osborne at 40 still retains the essence of Osborne at 17. Those who work for him now remark on his exceptional political brain, on his ability to out-think his opponents with strokes of tactical genius, to present even the most dense economic argument with an eye to what will make the next day’s headlines and to know, deep down in his bones, what will win over a crowd.
“I remember many times when we were faced with a tricky political problem and there’d be a light bulb moment,” says Conservative MP Matthew Hancock, who was Osborne’s economic adviser and chief of staff until last year. “There’s nobody else I’ve ever met where that moment was so obvious – his entire face would light up and he’d say: ‘No, we’ll do it like this.’ And it was always a really brilliant idea. He’s very creative.”
Yet for all that he inspires loyalty among those who work for him, Osborne has enough self-knowledge to realise that his public persona is fatally lacking. On television he comes across as stilted, lacking David Cameron’s easy bonhomie and banter. In parliament his youthful features – a plump, pale face; foppish dark hair – only serve to underline the impression that he is an overgrown public schoolboy not quite up to the job of steering the country through a devastating financial crisis. His privileged upbringing – Osborne is the eldest son of Sir Peter Osborne, the 17th holder of a hereditary baronetcy and the co-founder of wallpaper designers Osborne & Little – adds to the tabloid caricature of a toff with a trust fund. His mouth, according to one commentator, “is curled into a permanent sneer so it looks as if he’s laughing when he announces yet more cuts to public services”.
Unhelpfully, he is forever dogged by two infamous photographs from his past: the first, taken in 1992, depicts Osborne as a latter-day Sebastian Flyte, resplendent in tails and a blue bow tie as a member of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club; the second, taken a few years later, shows him grinning inanely with his arm flung casually around the shoulders of escort Natalie Rowe, surrounded by empty bottles of wine and what might or might not be a line of cocaine on the table in front of him. Those two images have reinforced – unfairly or otherwise – an overriding public sense of Osborne as a dilettante possessed of a healthy sense of entitlement. At a time when he is championing a series of swingeing austerity measures, Osborne is only too aware that such a preconception is unfortunate.
As a consequence he carefully rations his public appearances – a tactic that has earned him the nickname of “the submarine” among Tory staffers. “He stays underwater for a long time and when he appears he prepares impeccably,” explains Janan Ganesh, the political correspondent for the Economist who is currently writing a biography of Osborne. “He’s very open in private that he will – in his words – ‘never be a man of the people’. It’s a combination of material privilege and more superficial stuff, like the way he looks and sounds… During the past election campaign, for instance, he was not visible. That was because he knew he was more of an asset behind the scenes.”
Osborne at 17 could win a school debate without having to appear in person, but simply by having someone else read out his cleverly structured arguments. Twenty-three years later, as chancellor of the exchequer, that same strategy has been successfully refined and redeployed, albeit on a rather larger scale.
For Sam Bain, Osborne’s erstwhile debating partner, there is a feeling of inevitability about his classmate’s rise to power. “I certainly feel very old now looking at him as chancellor, but thinking about how he got there, it does make sense,” he says. “You probably have to be working at it for 20 years or more to achieve that. It does speak of someone who is very single-minded, and whether or not you agree with his politics, that’s a pretty extraordinary thing.”
To those who have observed his ascent from the outside, Osborne has always seemed to know exactly where he was going. Friends say that he is adamant that there was no steady teleological process – after graduating with a 2:1 in modern history from Magdalen College, Oxford, he toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist and pursued a number of dead-end jobs (at one point refolding towels in Selfridge’s) before a friend mentioned there was a vacancy in the research department of Conservative Central Office. From there he rose to become political secretary and speechwriter to William Hague before getting elected Conservative MP for Tatton in 2001 and then being appointed shadow chancellor by Michael Howard at the precocious age of 33.
Anyone looking at that inexorable rise would be forgiven for thinking Osborne had a masterplan. “Actually at every step [of his career], he had massive doubt,” says one friend. “It was: ‘What the hell am I going to do next?'”
Although there might have been doubt beneath the surface, superficially he seemed ambitious from the off. During the early days of Cameron’s opposition, employees at Conservative Central Office remember that Osborne’s professional style was markedly different from that of the leader’s. Whereas Cameron would come in each morning bluff and cheerful, greeting everyone by name, Osborne would walk straight to his office without a word and close the door.
“Osborne comes from this clever, entitled background; he’s got this ‘born to rule’ attitude,” says one peer. “He’s sharp, but he’s not as clever as Cameron.”
The Cameron-Osborne partnership has always been close – they are godfathers to each other’s children – in large part because of their differing strengths. Whereas Cameron is the public face of the party and the embodiment of a broad ideological vision, Osborne is the arch-tactician, the political chess player who delights in the game. He is in some ways the purest (and, some might say, the most terrifying) form of politician: driven not by any specific ideology but by the thrill of the chase, the exercise of statecraft and by ambition itself. “For him, politics is the biggest toy in the playground,” says one acquaintance.
“His first thought is: what is the politics of this, both internal and external?” says a former adviser. “It’s a great strength, but it can also be a weakness. There are plenty of times in politics where the right thing to do is not the politically correct thing to do. I think George is put on the spot in interviews when people say to him: ‘Why are you in politics? How do you want this country to be?’ That shines a telling light on him as a person and a thinker. His wiring is political and that means it is contextual, so his answer would depend on the prevailing political mood.”
Occasionally his obsession with day-to-day tactics rather than an overarching strategy has led to criticism within the Tory ranks. During the 2010 election campaign, which Osborne was masterminding, he produced a “Top Tory of the Day” T-shirt for any staffer who came up with the cleverest publicity coup. “He loves that kind of stuff,” says one political commentator. “He can put doing over your opponent ahead of the need for an underlying vision.”
His Liberal Democrat colleagues in the coalition government talk darkly of Treasury briefings against them, always carried out by underlings rather than Osborne himself, who is careful to remain charming in person. “Of course it’s partly Treasury arrogance – the institutional inability to give any other department credit,” says Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott, who quit as a House of Lords Treasury spokesman earlier this year in protest at Osborne’s failure to take strong enough action on bank bonuses. “Osborne is a very, very clever operator. He’s got a real eye for the political main chance.”
And yet Cameron – who is five years older than his chancellor – has been canny enough to harness this to his own advantage: he already has the advice of Steve Hilton (Cameron’s director of strategy) for blue-sky thoughts about Big Societies and the like. Osborne, by contrast, provides the hard-headed calculation. He also has more liberal instincts than Cameron on issues such as abortion and gay adoption. A low-tax, small-state Conservative, he is said to find some of Cameron’s money-guzzling social and environmental initiatives baffling. And Osborne can be radical: as a new backbencher, he proposed that the royal family should pay rent for Kensington Palace. It is for these reasons, says Ganesh, that “Cameron absolutely counts on him”. They are a complementary partnership.
Unlike Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whose alleged gentlemen’s agreement in 1994 over who would stand for the leadership became part of New Labour political mythology, Osborne insists he struck no such bargain. “There was no deal over the rabbit polenta,” he said in an interview six years ago with the Daily Telegraph. That, of course, does not mean he has no ambitions for the leadership – quite the contrary.
“To be a politician at that level, you have to take yourself very seriously and believe you can be leader,” says a former Conservative MP who used to work for Osborne. “But I think they learned a lesson from the Blair-Brown years. And that was: never, ever let it happen to us. They are genuinely brothers-in-arms. They’ve always both just put winning at the top of their list, even if their outlooks and priorities are different.”
The door between No 10 and the Treasury at No 11 is always open – in stark contrast to some previous regimes – and the prime minister trusts Osborne enough to allow him to chair the daily 4pm strategy meeting with Cameron’s inner team if he is away.
“They were always very close,” says one former Conservative cabinet minister, “but David was always clearly the dominant figure in that partnership. When I first met George and David for discussions, George would be silent. He would occasionally chip in, but it was evident that there was a lack of assertiveness and self-confidence. I think that’s changed. He’s grown in stature very encouragingly, because he needed to if he was going to be effective.”
How would his lack of confidence manifest itself? “You’d notice it. There was a certain nervousness.”
Again, there is a disparity here between the public and private Osborne. In public he comes across as being almost too confident for his own good; smoothly assured that his deficit-reduction plan is the right course of action even though almost no other western nation has followed suit and some economists continue to predict fiscal measures will cause sluggish growth and high unemployment for decades.
According to one senior adviser: “That’s when his political instincts come straight through and he says: ‘OK, I’m going to take some flak for this; I’ll fight my corner.’ I’ve not seen any impression of any particular gloominess. He’s not often shy of political jousting.” He is also well-regarded on the international stage, counting Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and US Treasury secretary Tim Geithner among his admirers (not bad for someone who used to have a beginner’s guide to economics in his office).
In private, however, there are signs that his self-assurance in parliament is something of an act. At parties he often appears uncomfortable and guarded, as though constantly on the lookout for a potential conversational banana skin. People who meet him outside the House of Commons find him difficult to connect with. “There’s an emotional distance there,” says one. “Everyone who works with him says he’s so charming, but I must admit I’ve always found him rather charmless.”
And it is true that in the corridors of power it is difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about him on a personal level. Even his most strident critics admit he is likeable, even if his policies aren’t.
In coalition he has, according to one Liberal Democrat, been “a courteous colleague. He’s a very smooth operator”. After the election Osborne made a point of going to business secretary Vince Cable’s office to introduce himself, even though it is customary for the more junior minister to make the effort. “He is always polite, quick and very sharp,” says one Liberal Democrat. This in spite of the fact that, according to one Conservative peer, Osborne finds the constraints of coalition “extremely irksome”. His relationship with Cable is said to be good – at least on the surface – but, says the Lib Dem: “We have to warn Vince about Osborne, because when someone’s being nice to him he lets his guard drop.”
Within his close team of young advisers – chief of staff Rupert Harrison, special advisers Eleanor Shawcross and Ramesh Chhabra are all in their late 20s or early 30s – he inspires almost fanatical loyalty. They are keen to stress his quick wit and dark, acerbic humour (although the best Osborne joke I heard was his remark during a Christmas party attended by the rapper 50 Cent. He is said to have quipped to guests: “That’s Mr Cent to you”), his sympathetic attitude to mothers who need to knock off early if their child is ill and his willingness to give career advice to up-and-coming politicos.
Time and again I am told that “the worst thing you can do in a meeting with George is not to speak your mind”. No one I talk to has ever seen him get angry, which suggests a remarkable level of self-control. “No, I’ve never seen him lose it,” says Hancock. “He gets passionate about things, but that’s different.” There is certainly no phone throwing these days in No 11.
“The people who work for him say that Osborne is young enough to remember what it was like to have a boss,” says Ganesh. “People say he’s considerate, and as a result of this he engenders a lot of residual personal loyalty. He’s developed a parliamentary following – MPs like Greg Hands, Claire Perry, Matt Hancock – all of whom worked for Osborne at some stage and who have retained their former loyalty.”
If he ever did decide to stand for leader, an Osbornite cabal would already be in place.
Osborne was born in 1971, the eldest of four brothers in a liberal-leaning, bohemian family. His mother, Felicity Loxton-Peacock, was a former debutante turned anti-Vietnam protester who eventually switched to voting Conservative after Margaret Thatcher became leader. His father, also liberal-minded, set up the family wallpaper business around the kitchen table in Notting Hill. It was, Osborne has said in the past, “a metropolitan upbringing [rather] than a landed, shire-county upbringing” of the kind David Cameron enjoyed.
The fact that he turned out a Tory is a cause of some amusement among his extended family. His brothers – Adam, Benedict and Theo – have all followed less conventional paths. Adam Osborne is a doctor who was suspended from the General Medical Council for six months last year after improperly prescribing drugs to a cocaine-addicted escort. He converted to Islam to marry his wife Rahala in 2009. Benedict is a graphic designer, while Theo runs an online bookmaking company.
As a child Osborne was, by his own admission, “the most sensible out of all the kids. I was extremely well behaved.” His love of learning earned him the nickname “Knowledge” from his siblings.
In reality the name his parents gave him was Gideon, which he famously chose to drop at the age of 13 for the more straightforward George (his grandfather’s name) because “life was easier as a George”. Some of his classmates at St Paul’s believe Osborne made the change in order to sound less exotic and “more prime ministerial”. “It certainly falls in with my profile of someone who was already thinking about his image,” says one.
At school he was clearly bright, but not especially popular. His personal tutor Mike Seigel remembers him as “one of the most talented students I came across in a quarter of a century. He had a determination to do well.” Osborne went on to Oxford, where he edited the university magazine Isis in 1992 and produced a special edition partially printed on hemp paper to indicate the importance of “green issues”.
Unlike his future boss William Hague, who had graduated from Magdalen a decade before, Osborne did not get involved in the Oxford Union. But as a 19-year-old he did stand for the post of Entertainments Representative in his college junior common room (JCR) along with a friend. It was here, perhaps, amid the cut-price beer and freshers’ high jinks, that he got his first taste for politics. In fact his electioneering was so enthusiastic his rival for the position wrote a letter of complaint to the JCR vice president outlining Osborne’s underhand tactics.
The letter, dated 15 November 1990, reads: “I wish to lodge a complaint concerning electorate malpractice on the part of Messrs George Osborne and [the friend] on three counts, namely:
1 The dissemination of five different wordings of posters, instead of the mandatory two.
2 The posting of the above on places other than noticeboards, such as doors and walls.
3 The attempt on the part of Mr Osborne to pervert the democratic process by electioneering in the JCR.
I would urge that these matters be considered with a view to possible disqualification.”
The complaint is signed by RD Harding, who went on to win the election. Rupert Harding, who now works at a language school in Finland, is rather embarrassed by the strident tone of his letter. “I have little to no recollection of the campaign,” he says. “Perverting the democratic process I think meant going up to people after Neighbours and asking them to vote for him.” Osborne was, in any case, roundly defeated at the hustings.
At Oxford, Osborne’s contemporaries remember him as one of a clique of “braying public schoolboys”. His friends saw a different side – “My recollection of George is that he was a nice bloke, quite approachable, shy and very bright,” says one – but his membership of the notorious Bullingdon Club did little to dampen the perception of elitism. Infamous for its riotous behaviour, the society is open only to sons of aristocratic families or the super-rich. The initiation process was to down a bottle of tequila while standing on a table. That immortal Bullingdon photo would come back to haunt him.
The goings-on of the Bullingdon are extremely secretive, but one of Osborne’s contemporaries, who has never spoken to the press, told me what happened after that photograph of Osborne, standing imperious in bow tie and tails, was taken. “We got on a double-decker bus and drove to Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire,” he says. “It started to get really out of control. I remember a guest being comatose on the lawn, being tended to by a butler who was applying cold towels to his forehead, trying to bring him round. One of the guys got into a fist fight because he was Italian and a football match was on and there’d been some racial taunting. Plates had been thrown. As usual, it escalated. It was a group of young, testosterone- and alcohol-fuelled men, many of whom don’t ever have to work. I think George was mildly alarmed. He was enjoying the food and wine, enjoying watching the football, and I just remember him looking at me with raised eyebrows at what was going on. I never saw him take drugs.”
On a different occasion with Osborne also present, he remembers one Bullingdon member “trying to snort lines of coke from the top of an open-top bus and the bus was speeding along so it kept blowing away. I said to him: ‘You’re stupid. It’s blowing away,’ and his response was: ‘I can afford it.'”
Another time Osborne and the other Bullingdon members went for a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire where, coincidentally, the comedian Lenny Henry was having dinner with his then-wife Dawn French. “We interrupted the whole evening,” the source says. “A couple of the boys started getting obnoxious and talking about their family wealth and Henry said: ‘Actually, sod off.’ Then there was a slight altercation when a member put a cigar out on someone else’s lapel and it turned into a fight and furniture was broken. It was horrible, horrible. We used to smash everything up and then pay a cheque, saying: ‘It’s OK; we can pay for it.’ It was pretty shocking.”
How did an undergraduate who supposedly smashed up furniture and downed tequila get from there to become chancellor of the exchequer? “In a sense there’s no difference between the Bullingdon George and the chancellor George: they both simply wanted to be the best,” explains one former colleague. “Being the best at Oxford, in his eyes, meant joining the Bullingdon.”
Osborne has remained understandably tight-lipped about his youthful excesses, insisting, even when the photograph of him with vice-girl Natalie Rowe emerged in 2005, that MPs are entitled to have lived a life pre-politics. But it certainly appears from this account that Osborne liked to cut loose and have a good time. And it seems an element of that has stayed with him, despite the guardedness he is now careful to assume in public. When I ask a senior coalition colleague how Osborne made the transition from party animal to sober-minded politician, the reply comes: “I don’t think anyone’s ever believed he’s sober. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was trying to relive the youth he never had.”
A few years ago, at the wedding of his brother-in-law Toby Howell (Osborne’s author wife, Frances, is the daughter of Conservative peer Lord Howell and the couple have two children, Luke, 10, and Liberty, eight), Osborne was, according to onlookers, encouraged to play a game of “pass the ice cube” with fellow guests. Osborne gamely agreed and is said to have found himself mouth-to-mouth with the pop star Geri Halliwell, who was there as the girlfriend of Henry Beckwith, the son of a millionaire property developer. Posterity does not record the reaction of either party. By all accounts, Frances would have taken it in good part. “She’s very much her own woman,” says an acquaintance. “They both lead quite independent lives.”
More seriously, Osborne’s taste for the high life also led to one of the worst errors of his political career. In October 2008, it was claimed that Osborne had tried to solicit a £50,000 donation from the Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska while holidaying on the oligarch’s yacht with Peter Mandelson off the coast of Corfu. Such a move would have been a violation of the law against political donations by foreign citizens. A formal complaint was made to the Electoral Commission. Although the Commission rejected the claims and Osborne has always strongly denied the allegations, he was astute enough to know that it did not look good.
“He learned the lesson of his folly in Corfu,” says one former chancellor of the episode. “It was obviously very silly. But the important thing was not that he did it but that he learned his lesson and that will prevent him from doing something stupid in future.”
When Natalie Rowe gave an interview last month to the Australian news channel ABC in which she claimed Osborne had taken cocaine with her, the chancellor seemed unperturbed. He did not comment on the allegations, even when there was speculation that Osborne remained so indebted to the then News of the World editor Andy Coulson for not making too much of the Rowe story when it first broke six years ago that he recommended him to Cameron as his director of communications.
“He definitely thinks he’s silly to have done some of those things,” says one of Osborne’s close associates. “But it does speak to his deep self-confidence that he’s always assumed he’ll be running the country and none of this breaks his stride.”
From the school debating team to the Bullingdon and all the way to No 11, Osborne has always wanted to be the best. If this means the next logical step is to become prime minister, it would be foolish to underestimate his determination to get there. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/oct/01/george-osborne-bullingdon-club-government