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The Light at the Top of the Tree

Most people, if they were asked about Lord Raglan, would start talking about sleeves and indeed the style was invented for him by Aquascutum so that he could better use his sword in battle, his right arm having been amputated at Waterloo. Those who know their 19th-century history will go further and identify him as the man who commanded the British contingent in the Crimean War, the man who picked up a large share of the blame attaching to that disastrous campaign.

An aristocrat to his fingertips, he was born Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the fifth son of the Duke of Beaufort, Raglan was a man of great charm but that is not the primary quality for a military commander. Urbane, polite and tactful, he was liked by those who served with him but his orders were not always clear, something which may have contributed to the launch of the Light Brigade in its disastrous charge to the Russian guns at Balaclava. Also he did not deal firmly enough with his French allies and picked up flak, perhaps unfairly, for being too remote from the Peninsula on which his troops were suffering in the winter. In the end he died and clinical depression was given as one of the causes of his death.

On paper it should have been different. His career as military secretary to Wellington and subsequently to the Horse Guards was sparkling; there the diplomatic skills and personal antennae which supplemented his undoubted courage were just what was needed to complement the brusque manner of the Iron Duke. It was just that the qualities which made him a superb aide to Wellington were not the qualities which were required when he became top man himself. It is a common enough story and we see it in politics too. Look at Brown, the clever Chancellor, emerging from the shadow of Blair to take the reins himself and lose the next election. Look at Anthony Eden, a great Foreign Secretary under Churchill, but a disaster once he moved into Downing Street. Excellence in the number two position is not necessarily a guide to performance as number one.

Let's look now at George Osborne, a man whose star has risen as Britain has confounded the sceptics with the pace of its recovery. Everyone respects his judgement and public and press see him as the intellectual fibre which stiffens the Cameron administration. No wonder that he has moved ahead in the race to become Leader in 2019. After all, who are the others? Well there's Boris Johnson, a good stint as Mayor under his belt but maybe not the gravitas for the top job. There is Teresa May, a long record as Home Secretary to her credit but perhaps a little too tough for the Country. Then Michael Gove, a little too principled? Hammond? well perhaps, and lots of Graylings, Morgans, Fallons etc bringing up the rear. But at the moment none of them touches Osborne and the public is getting used to the idea that when Cameron disappears back into the embrace of clubland, his mantle will drop onto the shoulders of the boy next door.

And yet the tax credit debacle makes one wonder. How is it possible that the Treasury did not see this one coming down the tracks. If their own budget assessments did not pick up the effect on low paid workers they should surely have spotted the problem when the Institute of Fiscal Studies published its analysis. How come there was no change of tack then? Surely it was obvious that sooner or later the government would have to adjust its proposals and that, if it did not, it would cause itself a great deal of damage electorally. And yet, like the Titanic, or possibly unlike the Titanic because there was no warning of the iceberg, they held their course until it went wrong.

There are two possibilities. The first is that Osborne genuinely believed that the IFS's analysis was wrong. If that is so, why did the Government not trash it? Why, when the matter was before the Lords were we not treated to endless figures showing that it would all be all right? The alternative is that the Chancellor thought that the best course was to ram the proposals through and then soften them in the autumn statement, perhaps on the basis that the economy was now looking even stronger than before - a bow from the wizard and the opposition sloping off muttering disconsolately. If that was the idea, the strategy didn't work and was a great deal more cunning than it should have been.

The second theory chimes nastily with the electorate' nervousness of Osborne. He is clearly very clever but leaves the impression that some of his moves are designed to discomfort his political opponents as much as to help the country. His attempt to get Labour to sign up to his ideas on balancing the budget are an example of this. They don't mean much in practical terms but were a trap to force the opposition into making it difficult decision. Fair enough in a way but shouldn't this type of manoeuvring be a little below the dignity of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The country want him focused on our interests, not on political games.

If that is so now, it will be even more so if he becomes prime minister. There is no need for him to be as chilled as Cameron - indeed that would hardly suit his personal style - but the country will expect a focus on state rather than party political affairs. Were he to become prime minister and then to give the impression that he is making decisions for political advantage rather than in the national interest he would join that unfortunate list of which Lord Raglan, Gordon Brown and Anthony Eden are such prominent members, the list of able men who climbed too far and withered away once they exchanged the shadow of the branches for the light at the top of the tree.

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