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When he was an ambitious 23-year-old in the mid-1990s, one of George Osborne's jobs as head of the Conservative Research Department's political section was to prepare cabinet ministers for appearances on Question Time.The young Osborne was brilliant at it: coaching members of John Major's top team on what questions would come up on the programme, and how to move the story on.
This famed ability for "war-gaming" politics, or thinking like a chess grand master, as one loyal MP describes it, which has carried Osborne from the bottom of the Tory party to the top of Government, appeared to desert the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Wednesday.After days of leaks, everyone expected Osborne to pull a rabbit out of the hat – an expectation fuelled by a broad smirk as he appeared on the steps of No 11 Downing St, Budget Box aloft."George loves a rabbit," said one friend as the nation awaited Osborne's statement.Yet the only surprise was a raid on the personal allowances of pensioners – or the "granny tax", as it quickly became known – which was splashed all over the next day's papers.Even Osborne's closest allies admit that it was an error not to foresee the ferocity of the reaction to the cuts to the age-related allowance.So where does this leave Osborne's credibility as the man with the biggest political brain in Westminster?
And, more importantly, what does it do to his ambitions to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader?David Laws, the former Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, who is close to Osborne, said on Thursday that the Chancellor had proved he was a "grand strategist" who had "pulled off quite a political coup".But not all coalition members and MPs agree; his strategic gaffes have caused lasting damage.Chief among them, in 2007, was recommending Andy Coulson to Cameron as his director of communications, a decision that haunts the Prime Minister to this day.Another serious error, Osborne's critics complain, was persuading Cameron to agree to a series of televised leadership debates during the 2010 election, which gave too much exposure to Nick Clegg and in the end cost the Tories an outright victory. One says: "If Osborne is such a great strategist, why didn't we win the 2010 election, which he masterminded? Unlike Cameron and Steve Hilton, he was too young to have worked on the Tories' successful 1992 election.By the time of Osborne's first campaign, in 1997, little could stop Tony Blair.