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  • Finlay McPherson

‘Dead woman walking’ - Why Sacking George Osborne Was One of Theresa May’s Biggest Mistakes

Theresa May became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2016, succeeding David Cameron after his unsuccessful attempts to keep Britain in the European Union during the Brexit referendum. Despite believing in it, May had been mostly silent through the referendum and was not seen campaigning to remain in any huge capacity - earning her the nickname ‘submarine Remainer’.

George Osborne, on the other hand, was the very well-regarded Chancellor of the Exchequer, who played a key part in making the Conservative party electable once again - and was a large reason why the Tories were able to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and gain a majority in the 2015 election. Osborne had been David Cameron’s right-hand man throughout the referendum and therefore one of the remain campaign's most vocal advocates.

Osborne tried, and ultimately failed, to make the case for remaining within the European Union for its economic benefits, and the costs that leaving would have on the British taxpayer. Facing a near-impossible task of getting Brexit through a mostly remain-supporting Parliament and dealing with a party that was fractured and reeling from the referendum result would always prove to be a challenge for May, but sacking the former Chancellor in the waking moments of her premiership has proven to be one of her most ill thought out ideas.

From the very offset of the Cameroonian years in Number 10, George Osborne was hailed as the man with a long-term economic plan to improve the country’s finances - and was certainly putting pay to that praise. He was behind most of the economic policies that saw a huge reduction in government expenditure, helping the nation get back on its feet, following a huge blow to the nation's finances and economic performance. This followed the financial crisis which saw many of the country’s financial institutions brought to their knees.

He had constantly been at the forefront of pushing for the fiscal changes and cuts to expenditure that the nation needed. He was often put at loggerheads with opposition politicians, and even those within his own party, doubted his economic plans, believing them to be too unpopular to pursue. Osborne nevertheless pushed through, and the country was all the better for it - economic performance was healthy, and his choice to stick to his guns was becoming vindicated.

His economic plan was a long-term one, and by achieving a majority in 2015 many thought Osborne would be able to execute this plan to the best of his abilities. Unfortunately, this was never realised due to May’s premature sacking of Osborne. Not only did this put the party's much-lauded long-term economic plan under threat, but it caused backlash within the party due to the fact that Osborne was well respected and very experienced. This complete disregard for the divisions within the parliamentary party would ultimately prove to be May’s undoing. Osborne was one of the key figures advocating for party unity throughout his time in office, and was a skilled negotiator apt at navigating the various fractures that existed within the Conservative Party. To fire someone with such a high skill-set is a highly foolish decision.

Had he not been dismissed in one of May’s first moves as Prime Minister, George Osborne would have been able to see out his economic plan with a Tory majority in Parliament. He would have continued to do so even in what eventually became a government propped up with a supply and demand agreement, had he chosen to stand again in the 2017 general election. While it is obvious that May felt she had to balance the government between Remainers and Brexiteers, firing Osborne just as he was entering another phase of his economic plan was a poorly thought-out move. In addition to this, replacing Osborne with Philip Hammond, who himself was a Remainer, seems to prove further that this was a result of an internal dispute - and perhaps an attempt to shore up her own position, rather than an attempt to balance the government or act in the national interest.

Osborne has spoken openly about how he was dismissed and his feelings towards the former Prime Minister. In an interview with Matt Forde, on a live episode of The Political Party Podcast, Osborne said that May had asked him to leave through the back door - an even more humiliating end to the job he had worked so hard at for the last six years. During this dismissal, May had also told him to go and learn more about the Conservative Party, a political organisation he had worked for and supported for over two decades. This was a move that would prove to be highly ironic, due to May’s complete failure to connect the parliamentary and grassroots elements of the party.

The decision to make an enemy of a former chancellor is never a good idea, but particularly not one that ended up in such an influential post-politics job as George Osborne. After leaving Parliament Osborne was appointed the Chief Editor of the Evening Standard. The Evening Standard is one of the country's most circulated newspapers, with circulation numbers averaging upwards of 820,000, and it is also 200 years old - making it one of the oldest tabloids still in circulation today. The fact that the Standard holds so much sway in the opinion of the British people, particularly in its native London, means that the May administration had made a dangerous enemy when Osborne took over the paper.

Being a former chancellor in itself gave Osborne’s scathing criticisms of May, and her government, a huge sense of credibility - with his role as editor of the Evening Standard only bolstering this, one of the most damaging criticisms of May launched by Osborne came towards the end of her time in office. He labelled her a ‘Dead Woman Walking’, words that no doubt reverberated throughout the corridors of an embattled Number 10. Throughout May’s time as Prime Minister, the Evening Standard launched countless attacks on her administration - and is credited for being part of the media storm that eventually led to Theresa May’s resignation in May 2019.

Some of the most infamous Evening Standard headlines issued under Osborne’s editorship included calling her the ‘Queen of Denial’, and saying that she had been ‘hung out to dry’ - essentially undermining her authority at every turn. While it is often said that any press is good press, this is not the case with a May-ally-turned-enemy at the helm.

It can always be argued that May had the right to dismiss Osborne and bring in her own people, but to do it in the manner that she did was a total misstep and something she has surely come to regret. Had she moved Osborne into a different position in cabinet, or let him go in a far more professional way than she did, he may not have turned the Evening Standard into a lethal weapon against the government. May did not have the foresight to see the damage turning a former Chancellor against her and her administration would cause. It is another element of poor decision-making that led to the dismissal of a hugely talented Chancellor, a decision that was perhaps one of May’s worst.

While May proved herself to be a skilled political operator during her time in the Home Office, so much so that she became one of the most feared cabinet members, this did not translate into her time in Number 10. Osborne could have, and probably should have, been a key ally for May’s administration. His loyalty to the party, to the country, and his desire to fight in the national interest would have proven invaluable in what became an administration fraught with infighting - and murmurs of civil war. Instead, she turned him into one of her earliest and most potent enemies. The missed potential of May’s regime will leave marks on the political landscape for years to come: her early dismissal of such a talented politician is sure to be seen as a key reason why it was never able to fulfil its potential.

After all this, it is no surprise that on the day of May’s resignation Osborne, appearing on the aforementioned podcast, jokingly said he was ‘f***ing distraught’ at the news of her resignation - sarcastically adding that it was ‘such a shame’, before clarifying that he thinks ‘British politics will cope’. He later went on to call back to the fact that May said that he should go away and get to know the Conservative Party better, adding that he ‘has been on that mission for three years and [he] can report back…[that] they don’t like her’.

George Osborne has had the final laugh.


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