Ex-chancellor Osborne savages Boris Johnson over Covid 'optimism'

Ex-chancellor George Osborne savages old ‘frenemy’ Boris Johnson over his ‘optimism’ and urges him to emulate his hero Winston Churchill and be ‘realistic’ about the long-term impact of coronavirus

  • Former chancellor said ‘real leadership is about being realistic’ in BBC podcast
  • Said that Churchill was honest that fight against Nazis would take a long time
  • Added: ‘Telling us the crisis is going to be over soon hasn’t really worked’

George Osborne attacked Boris Johnson’s ‘optimism bias’ today, urging the Prime Minister to emulate his political hero Winston Churchill and be ‘realistic’ about coronavirus.

The former chancellor criticised Mr Johnson’s attempts to tell the British people that they faced a short battle against the pandemic, saying ‘real leadership is about being realistic’.

Mr Osborne, now editor-in-chief of the London Evening Standard, pointedly invoked Mr Churchill, saying that he did not deceive the nation during the war that the fight against the Nazis would be over quickly and easily.

Mr Johnson has previously attempted to tell the country that the worst of the coronavirus impact on their lives and the economy could be over by Christmas. 

But the second wave of cases that has since hit the country has led to new localised lockdowns that many fear could last into the new year. There are also fears over the long term impact on the economy.

Mr Osborne, who was chancellor from 2010 to 2016 in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, told the BBC’s Newscast podcast: ‘There’s a broader point over which I would say the government needs to watch for which is a kind of optimism bias. 

‘Boris Johnson is the great person who is supposed to cheer us up, and he’s a great – ‘boosterism’ and all of that – but you also have to be realistic. 

And, you know, I think this constantly telling us the crisis is going to be over soon hasn’t really worked for the government. 

 Mr Johnson has previously attempted to tell the country that the worst of the coronavirus impact on their lives and the economy could be over by Christmas

The former chancellor criticised Mr Johnson’s attempts to tell the British people that they faced a short battle against the pandemic, saying ‘real leadership is about being realistic’

Boris Johnson and George Osborne have a complicated history in the Conservative Party.

Mr Osborne was chancellor for six years from 2010 until 2016, while Mr Johnson was mayor of London. 

The ex-occupant of No11 Downing Street  stood alongside then PM David Cameron to support Remain, while Mr Johnson made a last-minute decision to support Leave.

Mr Osborne was later fired by Theresa May, who brought Mr Johnson back into Government as foreign secretary.

In a move perhaps partly motivated by wanting to get back at Mrs May, Osborne backed him in the race for Downing Street  in the Tory leadership election.

He said the former mayor of London was the ‘best shot’ to unite the nation.

The former chancellor who stood down as a Tory MP at the 2017 general election said Mr Johnson was the candidate who could bring together the warring government and also make the UK feel ‘good about itself again’.

But the decision raised eyebrows within the Conservative Party given Mr Osborne was one of the leading figures in the Remain campaign in the run up to the 2016 EU referendum.

Mr Osborne was accused of being the architect of ‘Project Fear’ in the run up to June 23 as he repeatedly warned against voting for Brexit on the grounds it would do major harm to the British economy.

But he swung fully behind a Tory leadership candidate who won the keys to Downing Street precisely because of his Brexiteer credentials.

The decision to back Mr Johnson represents something of a change of heart for Mr Osborne given his previous criticism of his fellow Tory heavyweight.

In May 2019 he said he believed there were two versions of Mr Johnson and he was unsure which one would be contesting the Tory leadership race.

He told ITV: ‘There have always been two Boris’s. There is hard Brexit Boris and there is the mayor who won Tory victories in a city which previously voted Labour. We will see which Boris emerges.’

And they’re having to sort of get back into the much tougher political message which is it’s a long hard slog and essentially reintroduce the furlough scheme…’

Mr Osborne’s comments came at the end of a difficult week for the Prime Minister.

His administration was locked in a battle with Manchester leaders over a Tier Three lockdown financial package. 

It has also faced criticism over failures in its test and trace system and a refusal to support efforts by England and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford to introduce free school meals during the school holidays. 

Mr Johnson is also facing attacks from the right of politics over the UK’s growing debt mountain, with the Government borrowing more than a billion pounds a day in the first six months of the pendemic.

The PM and Mr Osborne are former political rivals. Mr Osborne stood alongside then PM David Cameron to support Remain, while Mr Johnson made a last-minute decision to support Leave.

Mr Osborne was later fired by Theresa May, who brought Mr Johnson back into Government as foreign secretary.

The PM has made no secret of his admiration for Britain’s wartime leader Sir Winston, who led the country from 1940 to 1945 and was known for his powerful rhetoric and speeches to the nation. He wrote a biography of the Tory idol in 2015, while mayor of London.

And Mr Osborne invoked this adoration today with a stinging attack, telling the BBC: ‘I think real leadership is about being realistic. And I know obviously Boris is a great fan of Winston Churchill and wrote a book about him.

‘You know, Winston Churchill did not say in 1940, ”We’re going to beat the Nazis in the next few months. We’re definitely going to win.”

‘He said, ”I’ve got nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears.” It wasn’t very optimistic, but it was realistic. And I think it, you know, played a very important part in national morale at that time.’

It came as a Cabinet minister admitted most people should expect Christmas this year to be different from previous ones due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay, speaking as sweeping new restrictions were imposed on millions more people in different parts of Britain, said he hoped families could be together over the festive season.

Greater Manchester moved into the highest alert level, Tier 3, on Friday morning, and Wales was introducing its two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown at 6pm.

Coventry, Stoke and Slough will enter Tier 2 on Saturday, while talks between Westminster and civic leaders in Nottingham over possible Tier 3 restrictions were continuing on Friday.

Asked how he would describe the chances of people having a ‘normal Christmas’ despite Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I would describe it as a shared endeavour for all of us.

‘All of us want to be able to enjoy Christmas with our families. And that’s why there is a common purpose here to get the virus down.’

Referring to Christmas, Mr Barclay said: ‘I think few people expect it to be exactly as it would normally because we will be living with this virus for some time.

‘And the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser have been very clear on that.

‘But, your point really was about the ability of families to spend Christmas together – that is something we all hope to be in a position to do.’ 

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