Could David Cameron sacrifice George Osborne?

George Osborne Still

Unsurprisingly, the Tories have been running around like headless chickens since their votes were counted (it didn't take long) in Eastleigh.

But the P-word that has been liberally invoked to describe the cabinet's incoherent response (panic) is less important than the P-word that confronts both David Cameron and his would-be nemesis, Ukip's Nigel Farage: paradox.

The paradox is that they both think Ed Miliband's Labour party is beatable at the coming general election (I fear they are right) and that the Lib Dems face a wipeout then too (not quite so sure of that). But they also know that a divided Tory party whose votes have been leeching away to Ukip could deliver some sort of election victory to the centre-left in 2015, one in which pro-European Miliband gets under the duvet with a post-Clegg, pro-European Lib Dem leadership.

It could happen if defections to Ukip prove to be more than mid-term protest votes and nullify Cameron's drive to win 20 marginal seats from Labour and 20 from the Lib Dems. Eastleigh also suggested that, despite everything, some Labour tactical voters are still willing to keep a Lib Dem in at the expense of a Maria Hutchings.

A Tory lurch to the right – Cameron's Sunday promise not to do that was offset by cabinet noises to the contrary – would reinforce that temptation, though it might – might – prick the (still modest) Ukip bubble. Yet history suggests that pandering to protest parties boosts their legitimacy. If they have something worth saying (on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration I think they do) the best response is to adopt the policy and denounce the party.

Divided the Conservative party certainly is. In today's Guardian John Harris makes a good job of explaining how alienated small-c conservative Britain feels from the metropolitan elite at present: that means especially the Tories who are meant to provide them with a home.

Tim Montgomerie, mastermind behind the grassroots ConservativeHome website and newly promoted Comment page editor at the Times (bad news for Dave there, I fear), uses today's column (paywall) – would that be a fifth column? – to urge his leader not to wobble or promise the moon, but to deliver on what he and his team have promised.

Wobbling they have been. Chris Grayling wants to repeal the Blairite Human Rights Act. Theresa May wants to go much further and leave the 1948 European convention on human rights (ECHR) that underpins it. There is much wrong with the way both currently function, but Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke, both weightier figures, dissent from such glib thoughts. The Lib Dems threaten a veto, though neither coalition partner dare force an election in the present mood.

No wonder voters don't know where the coalition is on so many policies, including Europe, immigration, the central management of the economy. It's what voters voted for in May 2010 – confusion, uncertainty and no Commons majority – but they think they pay politicians to sort it out. That's why I still think the coalition will stagger on to the designated election day , 7 May 2015, under its present Cameron/Clegg duumvirate.

Why so? Because no one in their parties really has a better idea. Now that Chris Huhne is permanently indisposed, there's no obvious challenger to Clegg, certainly not Uncle Vince. As for Cameron, Adam Afriyie, is a soft-spoken evidently decent man, a self-made IT entrepreneur with lots of money and – he insists – no plans to stand against his leader, despite a recent claim in the Sunday Times.

That's good. There is always room for a stalking horse after a bad budget or the May local elections if they prove dire and riskier room for a serious stalker. But the former is a detail and I cannot spot the latter. Eleanor Laing, MP for Epping Forest, was quick to tell Cameron to listen to core Tory voters after Eastleigh and she is a supporter of exiled ex-defence secretary, Liam Fox. But to everyone but himself Fox's chances of becoming Tory leader were only slightly greater than mine – even before the Adam Werrity affair.

Who else is in sight? Only Boris Johnson matters and he has his hands full being London mayor. In the event of a disaster – let's say a plane crash or other fatal blow to the PM – he is the saviour many Tories would look to, while others rushed for the exit. He would need a seat and much else, including harder work than Boris is accustomed to doing.

There are two obvious ways Cameron could signal a change of heart that would provide what Montgomerie calls TLC (that's tender loving care to younger readers) for the party faithful. One is in a shift of policy priorities, widely advocated, which annoy them – from gay marriage to wind farms. Tempting but probably foolish, since either would push other voters out of the door.

The other is a shift on economic policy or the people who manage it. In Canadian Mark Carney, the Bank of England is about to get a new supervisor of monetary and regulatory policy, less cautiously inflexible than Sir Mervyn King was until his own P-for-panic set in.

But George Osborne is Gordon Brown to Cameron's Blair. I cannot see him being moved to make way for a more proactive steward of our taxation and public spending regime, let alone by whom.

Yet there is ALWAYS someone and the economy is badly stalled. Even the dozing credit ratings agencies have begun to notice. The left wants him to go easy on the cuts – so does the cabinet, according to reports today – while some on the right wants him to cut taxes and hope for the best, the formula which has ravished the US federal budget these past 10 years or so.

Time to think the unthinkable? I spent years deriding Blairite whispers that the boss might finally move his secretive and disruptive chancellor. Brown was too important, too dangerous and (on some things) too right, to be moved. For better or worse was Labour's destiny, the heir-all-too-apparent, impatiently awaiting his moment like Macbeth with a rubber dagger.

I've always felt the same about Cameron and Osborne. But Tory leaders are always more ruthless. Even nice John Major sacked his campaign manager and chancellor, Norman Lamont. They know their party believes in the führerprinzip – you trust the leader until he/she screws up, then off with their heads, even Maggie's. Osborne, the smooth metropolitan, does not have much of a personal base among MPs or activists to shield him.

So it had better be a better budget than last year's shambles, chancellor. Politically attractive, economically coherent, not too mean to the poor, who have suffered enough, not too hard on the honest rich who can ship their moneybags elsewhere, above all a confident narrative for resumed growth which does not blame all our misfortunes on those pesky Europeans.

A tall order and – bless my soul – you only have until 20 March.

Powered by article was written by Michael White, for on Monday 4th March 2013 12.08 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010