George Osborne: a profile of Britain's youngest chancellor


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After a recent run of embarrassments and policy reversals, George Osborne finally got something right. His appointment of Canada's central bank head Mark Carney as the next governor of the Bank of England initially came as a shock but was then widely applauded as a masterstroke.

Carney, a former ice hockey player who looks like he could fit into the cast of Mad Men, had a "good crisis," with Canada's economy and banks weathering the storm much better than the UK. He also had the best CV of all the candidates - but Osborne had to spend months wooing him before the Canadian finally said yes.

This week Osborne goes into an altogether different battle. Despite his rigid adherence to austerity, underlying borrowing has been rising and Osborne hinted strongly at the weekend that he would miss even his modest goal of getting debt as a share of national income falling by 2015. His other goal is to balance the current budget. So he has started leaking the bad news to take the sting out of his autumn statement (a mini budget) on Wednesday.

If Osborne does announce he is missing his debt target, this will be despite employing the "fiscal dark arts" – with the public finances boosted near term by taking on Post Office assets and gilt coupon payments from the Bank of England's asset pile, and the liabilities pushed into the long grass.

The chancellor told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show: "It is clearly taking longer to deal with Britain's debts. It is clearly taking longer to recover from the financial crisis than one would have hoped, but we have made real progress."

But he added that the government was "making progress" and that to "turn back now would be a complete disaster". He also pledged that the well-off would "pay their fair share".

Youngest chancellor in 120 years
Since becoming the youngest chancellor of the exchequer in 120 years when he took charge of the nation's purse strings in 2010, aged 38, Osborne has faced the twin task of getting the record post-war budget deficit down and reviving a lacklustre economy. Osborne has stubbornly resisted calls from Labour to switch to "plan B" or even "plan A+" to ease back on austerity and kickstart economic recovery.

It's going to be hugely embarrassing for the chancellor to have to admit that he is breaking his own fiscal rules - despite the windfall boost from the Treasury's sudden seizure of the interest payments the Bank of England has received on the assets bought under its quantitative easing programme. They will go towards paying down the national debt over the next 18 months. But generally the government finances are in pretty bad state. Meagre economic growth means tax receipts have fallen far short of expectations, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted recently.

Who is the man behind austerity Britain?

Like David Cameron, Osborne comes from a privileged background. He is the son of a baronet and heir to the Osborne & Little wallpaper empire set up by his father. He is married to Frances, a novelist and daughter of a former Tory cabinet minister and has two young children, Liberty and Luke. They live in London and Cheshire.

Born in London in May 1971, George Gideon Oliver Osborne was initially known as Gideon before settling on the more commonplace George. Like Cameron he went to public school (St Paul's) before going on to Oxford to read modern history. Both were members of the elitist, hedonistic Bullingdon Club although not at the same time.

Having flirted briefly with journalism. Osborne joined the Conservative Research Department in 1994 alongside Cameron. After William Hague became party leader in 1997 he picked the 26-year-old Osborne as his political secretary. Osborne entered parliament in 2001 when he became the youngest Conservative MP in the House of Commons, for Tatton in Cheshire, the seat vacated by the white-suited anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell.

From 2005 Osborne served as shadow chancellor of the exchequer, doing battle with Gordon Brown followed by Alistair Darling. He is credited with transforming the fortunes of the Tories when he suddenly announced that a future Conservative government would exempt estates below £1 million from inheritance tax. The pledge, which boosted the Conservatives' standings in the polls in the autumn of 2007, put Brown off calling an early election which he may have narrowly won. Osborne also played an important role in hammering out a coalition deal with the Lib Dems after the 2010 election.

Osborne's nadir
His nadir came earlier this year after the much-mocked March Budget when he was forced into a number of policy U-turns. All the giveaways had been leaked by the coalition in advance, leaving the "granny tax" to make the headlines the next day.

Stung by accusations that the government was "out of touch," the chancellor backtracked on a plethora of issues in the coming months - from the granny tax, pasty tax, caravan tax and heritage tax to the cap on charity tax and fuel duty. His claim that "We're all in this together" still rings hollow though, with certain parts of the population - in particular women and the young - suffering far more than others under his austerity.

Osborne was even booed when he turned up at the Olympics. More recently, he made headlines as a "fare dodger" when he and his aide were sitting in the first class compartment of a train with only a standard ticket. Granada TV correspondent Rachel Townsend witnessed this and tweeted: "His aide tells ticket collector he cannot possibly move and sit with the likes of us in standard class and requests he is allowed to remain in first class. Ticket collector refuses." After a standoff a £160 upgrade was bought.

His father, Sir Peter Osborne, managed to embarrass the chancellor in April by giving details of his lavish lifestyle in an interview with the FT's How To Spend It magazine - at a time when his son was under attack for cutting the 50p top tax rate for high earners.

But whatever Osborne's gaffes and recent record as chancellor, Cameron regards him as an indispensable strategist for the next election campaign and his place in cabinet looks safe. In past elections Osborne has played a key role. "David phones him on everything," a party insider told the Financial Times in 2008.

It is tempting to compare this double act to another famous double act in British politics: Tony Blair and Brown. But undoubtedly the Cameron-Osborne partnership is much more amicable.

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