The Budget affords ambitious chancellors the chance to shine. Thus goes the common sense of the observers of Westminster's murky intrigues. If true, might one expect fiscal pyrotechnics at the despatch box this week as George Osborne delivers his speech? After all, this is the long lead-in to a contest the Tories are widely expected to lose. If this most likely scenario comes to pass and the front bench assumes seats on the other side of the house post-2015 (hopefully for a very long time), might we expect some post-Dave positioning this Wednesday from the present Second Lord of the Treasury?
Decency is a word that gets bounded about a lot in politics, but is seldom observed. Manoeuvring immediately after a politician has died is distasteful, but that's the way political game-playing go. Very quickly the perfunctory mourning interlude into a competitive flurry for the vacant position - with few seats, even fewer positions of influence up for grabs and large numbers of people wanting their slice of the parliamentary pie, it's hard to see how it could be otherwise. Yet, typically, this happens after someone has died or resigned.
It's a mark of the ongoing degeneration of the Conservative Party that this pretence has been cast aside. Whereas the Blair years were haunted by the spectre of Brown's succession, the long election for the Tories is less about taking the battle to Labour and more to do with who becomes the next big cheese. And all is carrying on while Dave's prime ministerial career still draws breath, such is the contempt for his leadership's writ. The right-wing press have for some time been running pieces on the three-way scrap between Osborne, Theresa May and Boris Johnson for the tatty Tory crown. The latest comes from the dining table of our old friend Rupert Murdoch and reports that Michael Gove had been unkind to Johnson and May both and is officially "on manoeuvres" on Osborne's behalf. As this government refuses to do anything substantive between now and the election, and having run out of legislation and ideas, I suppose something has to occupy our governing circles.
Okay, so Osborne wants the top job. But what for? Power has a tendency of driving out principle, and that is nowhere more truer than the modern Conservative Party. But no one enters politics and climbs the policy-making tree without subscribing to a set of ideas, even if baser motivations drive them. As it turns out, and this was news to me, there is a question hanging over Osborne's politics. Writing in Friday's Telegraph, Allister Heath asks where his philosophy is at. All the great chancellors were ideas people, and their policy legacies are tied up with the values and ideas they espoused. Hence Osborne needs to start staking out similar ground to win the election. After all, "Voters can be in no doubt that Ed Miliband’s government would be socialist, that it would wage war on markets, business and the successful. Many of us despise this message; but everybody knows exactly where Labour now stands."
I can't decide whether Allister is stupid or cynical. Either way his complaint is ridiculously off the mark. The policies Osborne has been associated with these last four years, "economic firefighting and cutting the deficit, policies born out of necessity ..." are born of anything but. Even my unwashed baking tray knows that from day one the deficit (which does need sorting) has been a policy drawbridge across which Osborne and Dave have marched a phalanx of ideologically-driven cuts to public spending. Dave's vision thing, of the rich shorn of as many social responsibilities the Tories can get away with and offloading the cost of the global banking crisis onto working people and the most vulnerable is every bit as much Osborne's idea of the good society. The rest, Osborne's so-called "economic policy" has been to wait and see while wages fall in real terms value and the poor have to beg JobCentre officials for referrals to their local food bank.
Basically, Osborne's politics are Thatcherite warm-ups. He has tried to get things moving again by applying a class war strategy to a context in which class struggle is more subterranean and scattered than the 1970s and 1980s. He does so because there's nothing else the Tories can do. Unlike Labour, which is groping towards a new settlement between capital and labour, the Tories, once condensing the majority view of British business, find themselves in hock to finance - the most regressive and socially useless section of British capital - and hence utterly adrift. And this isn't a property unique to Osborne. May and Johnson are equally compromised. With nothing in the policy cupboard all three are forced to look at yesteryear's photo albums and pantomime the things they see.
Therefore Allister and other Tories will come away from this week's Budget disappointed. Osborne has no wares. Not because of the awkward moment in the new electoral cycle, but because his party is politically empty. They're clapped out and need putting out of their misery. But unless we - the labour movement - makes the kill in 2015 there is every danger the Tories will drag the rest of the country into the knackers yard with them.