The Osborne Supremacy: Jetsetting Chancellor Eyes Top U.K. Job

  • From Beijing to Berlin, Osborne trailblazes foreign agenda
  • Augmented role from EU to trade `leaves him very exposed'

George Osborne’s globetrotting of recent weeks would position him well for the post of British foreign secretary if he wasn’t aiming higher.

In the latest overseas venture that signaled his goal of becoming Britain’s next prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer followed a higher-ranking chancellor, Angela Merkel, on to the stage at an industry event in Germany on Tuesday. From Beijing to Berlin, Osborne has undertaken trips that extend his remit beyond his finance ministry portfolio.

George Osborne in Berlin

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Prime Minister David Cameron “is doing his utmost to anoint him as a successor or he wouldn’t allow him such a prominent role in trade, China or the EU,” said Adrian Pabst, who lectures in politics at the University of Kent. Those extra strings to his bow ensure that Osborne is one of the most political chancellors of recent decades, said Pabst. “But it leaves him very exposed.”

Osborne’s dilemma is this: While the increased international profile helps set him up as a leader-in-waiting, the additional responsibilities carry domestic political risks that could yet undermine his ambitions.

In the German capital, he delivered a speech that set out some of the concessions Britain wants from the European Union before the stay-or-leave referendum promised by the end of 2017. While that helped cement his position as Cameron’s emissary in EU negotiations, it also binds him to the results, and that “could damage his chances of succession or indeed of winning a majority, should he succeed Cameron” at the next election, said Pabst.

Chinese Alignment

In September, Osborne led a delegation of ministers and business leaders around China that trailblazed a new era of ties with the world’s second-largest economy. That trip, followed by a state visit to Britain by Chinese President Xi Jinping, prompted media accusations that Osborne and Cameron were ignoring human-rights issues to promote British business interests.

Osborne may come to regret aligning the U.K. too closely with China if that economy slumps, according to Danny Gabay, a director of Fathom Financial Consulting Ltd. in London. Gabay noted at a conference on Tuesday that U.K. banks such as HSBC Holdings Plc and Barclays Plc account for more than 35 percent of the total exposure of foreign banks to China, more than double that of the U.S.

In Berlin, Osborne tried more outreach. He praised Merkel for supporting Britain and called for an alliance between the U.K. and Germany to reform the EU, portraying the two countries as the engines of jobs and growth in a moribund continent since the global financial crisis. He’d have been better directing his message to domestic voters, according to German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth.

“British politicians shouldn’t convince the Germans, they should convince the Brits,” Roth, who is responsible for European affairs, said in an interview. “It’s obvious that it’s in our national interest that the United Kingdom stay in the European Union -- the U.K. is a close partner and will remain a close partner and ally within the European Union -- but we need a much more pro-European atmosphere in order to win the referendum in the U.K.”

Masterminded Victory

Osborne, whose powers have steadily increased beyond his economic-management role since he helped mastermind the Conservatives’ election victory in May, has been marked out as the favored successor when Cameron steps down before 2020. He’s now the most senior cabinet minister beneath the prime minister, with expanded influence over domestic policies and an increased foreign-policy role that has seen recent visits to Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Osborne’s career has been marked by his willingness to take calculated risks and bend where necessary. Yet his political nous suffered a recent setback at home after the unelected upper House of Lords blocked his move to cut welfare for working families last month, marking a blow to his reputation as a shrewd strategist.

A decade ago, at 34, Osborne looked like he might become one of the Conservatives’ shortest-serving finance spokesmen. Accepting the job in 2005 brought him head-to-head with Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, then seen as one of Parliament’s most formidable operators. That same year he was clear-sighted enough to resist running for the Tory leadership, realizing that Cameron stood a better chance of winning.

A decade on, Osborne’s foreign outreach suggests he has outgrown any such reticence to assume the top job.

“It helps that he gets recognition from other world leaders and it helps that he’s seen to be supporting business,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said by phone. “Doing stuff on the world stage may have some minimal impact on voters, but it’s really about the economy when it comes to George Osborne.”

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