Labour strategists think they have identified a secret weapon in their increasingly plausible attempt to cling onto power in the face of political logic: shadow chancellor George Osborne. The Observer reports:
They said there was "strong evidence" from their own focus groups that people regard Osborne as "shrill, immature and lightweight", and that the Tories are already being harmed in the polls because of doubts about their economic policies.
A senior Labour party insider said mocked-up images of Osborne standing outside 11 Downing Street had been tried out on the focus groups and had drawn very negative responses. He claimed: "The intention is not to make it personal, but to make it about policy. When people are asked if they would like this man running their economy, the reactions are very strongly negative."
Of course the intention is to make it personal. And it may well work. The chancellorship is the only post, apart from the premiership itself, where it matters who is slated to occupy it. This is true especially at a time when the state of the national finances dominates everything else. And, frankly, George Osborne is not, and never has been, a plausible candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is not to disparages his intellect, his analysis of the economic situation or his grasp of policy detail. He has certainly been an effective political tactician - most notably, saving the Conservatives from having to fight an unwinnable election in 2007. If given the chance he might perform the technical aspects of the job competently, even brilliantly, and if so his reputation would grow with time. But the election is almost upon us; there is no time.
The problem is partly to do with his manner and his appearance. In some photographs he resembles a startled otter who's just been slapped in the face with a live salmon. He sounds querulous and weedy. A couple of weeks ago, Caitlin Moran likened him to Hugh Laurie's portrayal of the idiotic Prince of Wales in the third series of Blackadder. "You can imagine early Victorian explorers discovering a Pacific island full of huge, delicious, hapless George Osbornes and clubbing them into extinction in three months flat," she added.
There's no other word for it, he grates. It's not his fault, but he has an eminently punchable quality - like Ed Balls or Tony McNulty on the Labour benches. There's more than a hint of smugness - the most irritating quality in a politician.
There's also the toff factor, of course. Toffery isn't necessarily a turn-off, but there's toff and there's toff. Boris Johnson is gloriously, theatrically, life-affirmingly toffish, Bertie Wooster with brains, utterly lacking in self-consciousness or snobbery. People respond to that. George Osborne doesn't just come across as a toff, but a nerd as well. It's hard to think of a worse combination.
He can't help these things, any more than he can help being under forty. But politics is an unforgiving business, at times screamingly unfair.
Then there are the question marks over his personal judgement - ranging from youthful indiscretions (when he managed to get himself photographed with his arm draped around a call-girl) to the unfortunate business with Oleg Deripaska's yacht. Above all there's his inexperience - not just in fact but in appearance. Gordon Brown's most effective line - the one that saved his premiership - was "this is no time for a novice". However preposterous Brown's claim to economic management may seem over the long term, given the state to which he has reduced the national finances, the recession has not yet hit the country with the hurricane-strength force that was widely predicted. Alistair Darling is dull but reassuring, while the full horror of a Balls chancellorship will not be upon us until it is too late to vote. For the time being, and erroneously, sticking with Labour looks to many crucial voters as the safer option.
If Osborne sounded more convincing and coherent on economic policy then his inexperience might be forgiven. But his performances since the budget have been unimpressive. In a post where (above all now) there is a premium on trustworthiness he just doesn't hack it. He has been unable to explain how Tory policy would differ from Labour's, except that the cuts would come sooner. Hardly a vote winner: "When would you like me to chop your arm off, now or in twelve month's time?" There's a contradiction between Conservative promises to tackle the deficit and their refusal to spell out the detail of where the cuts will fall, and the voters sense it.
The only thing that ought to matter to the Conservatives - including George Osborne himself - is winning the election. The race is so tight that the possibility of an outright Brown victory, with potentially disastrous consequences for us all, can no longer be discounted. If Osborne is the vote-loser that Labour's focus groups are telling them he is then it's politically dangerous to leave him in post. Obviously, his departure for a less high-profile position would look like panic ("Tory campaign in chaos as Cameron ditches top ally"), but the embarrassment would pass within a day or two and would very soon be outweighed by the benefits. And Cameron would have the element of surprise. It would undercut Labour's strategy, leaving them floundering. It would leave Cameron looking like a bold, ruthless, decisive leader. It would be a masterstroke.
But the time to do it is now.