George Osborne’s battle to become Conservative leader may well be tougher than the battle he faces from the Labour Opposition.
The Chancellor delivers his eighth Budget today with only three in ten (31%) Britons believing he has done a good job as Chancellor. The backdrop for his set piece speech is perhaps more troubling: just one in four (26%) say their personal finances are better off than last year and 31% think the economy has improved. And yet, despite this, Osborne and Cameron have a 15 point lead over Labour’s team on economic trust.
While Mr Osborne has received many plaudits for moving to the political oasis of the centre ground after May last year, he has seen only small benefit so far. His favourability ratings have improved slightly since before the election, but even at his peak just one in four (25%) Britons had a favourable opinion of him.
And herein lies the crux, the Chancellor lacks what his best political friend – the Prime Minister – has, likeability. Worryingly for Mr Osborne is that his biggest rival, Boris Johnson, exudes it.
Perhaps a bigger concern for George Osborne is that Boris is also more popular among Conservative voters: 68% have a favourable view of the Mayor of London compared to 52% who are favourable towards the Chancellor. A ConservativeHome survey suggests that among party members - the more immediate electorate - the difference is even starker: Boris has a +56 satisfaction rating compared to -7 for Mr Osborne. Just before Boris begins filling the bookshelves of Downing Street with Roman mythology, it is worth bearing in mind that popularity does not necessarily translate into political credibility.
Winning a leadership battle is not all about being seen as Prime Ministerial however, as the Labour Party can most certainly attest to. Any number of factors are at play in a leadership contest, though of course the Conservative membership will not only be choosing their party leader but also the next Prime Minister (assuming David Cameron steps down ahead of the next General Election).
The race to succeed David Cameron will be played out in the shadow of the EU referendum. Candidates and potential candidates will be building and breaking support bases among MPs and members with their decision over whether to Leave or Remain.
Mr Osborne also suffers from being the early favourite (recently overtaken by Boris) in a race that increasingly favourites do not win. David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith were hardly considered front runners. On the other side of the aisle Jeremy Corbyn overcame odds of 100/1 to succeed Ed Miliband.
The challenge for the Chancellor is that he has been at the side of the Prime Minister for over a decade. He lacks David Cameron’s personal touch and Gordon Brown’s gravitas. It is difficult to shift an image of a politician that has been at the top of British politics for so long. George Osborne is suffering from being the Microsoft to David Cameron’s Apple. Mr Cameron had the sleek exterior and salesmanship of Apple which guaranteed market leadership for the product. Microsoft however is battling with a reputation for effectiveness but not the adulation of its trendier rival. Microsoft tried a new image and new products such as the Microsoft Surface. We wait to see how the Chancellor moves his reputation out of the confines of Number 11. It’s a difficult and long term challenge, but not impossible.
One area that perhaps he has been holding back is any insight into his non-political life. So far the public have only seen George Osborne the Chancellor and not George Osborne the man who went to an NWA gig. That may come in the next phase of his rebranding (following the diet and change of hair style). However, with an increasingly sceptical public, any overt attempts - a la Gordon Brown and the Arctic Monkeys - could backfire.
Should Liz Kendall want to pass on any advice to Mr Osborne, it might be that you need to win your membership before you get a chance with the wider public. The Chancellor will need to maximise his time at Number 11 to appeal to the membership that will be responsible for his fate. His priorities will be to strengthen his Conservative credentials (the impact of the EU referendum will be pivotal), proving his economic record, his leadership skills as well as his ability to defeat the Opposition. His most immediate opposition is not the Labour Party but pretenders to the Conservative throne.
*A version of this article first appeared on the Spectator's Coffee House blog.