George Osborne’s career looked finished after the overall vote for Brexit, and after he was unceremoniously ousted from Cabinet by the newly-crowned Prime Minister, Theresa May. The final nail in the coffin, it was thought, was when it emerged that his parliamentary seat of Tatton would be abolished in the boundary review. It seemed as though the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, having lost the Brexit gamble, had lost his political gravitas.
But then again, maybe not. For Mr Osborne has now found himself a safe seat – the Editor’s chair at the London Evening Standard.
Mr Osborne is expected to take up the new role in May, while keeping his seat in Parliament. He will have to balance his time carefully in order to fit in his other jobs: advising the investment manager Blackrock, chairing the Northern Powerhouse project, working as a Kissinger fellow at the McCain Institute and his speaking on the after-dinner circuit. His bulging portfolio has led to calls for him to stand down as MP for Tatton.
Yet Mr Osborne believes he can manage both jobs as ‘this paper is edited primarily in the morning’, while ‘Parliament votes in the afternoon’. This is rather ambitious: surely an editor needs to be an active presence in the evening, to confirm the final version before print? Extraordinary time management indeed.
Then again, one can afford such management. It has been suggested that since his fall from Cabinet grace, Mr Osborne has garnered more than £700,000 from public speaking; secured a £650,000 stipend for four days’ work a month from BlackRock; been granted a £120,000 fellowship at the McCain Institute; and can now expect to take home more than £220,000 for a four-day week at the Standard. That’s on top of his £75,000 salary as an MP.
Needless to say, the announcement of the selection of Mr Osborne caused such a furore, because MPs who undertake second jobs will now fear Mr Osborne’s dealings will lead to a crackdown on outside earnings that, in turn, will cost them money. Already it has been suggested that this will trigger an official review by the UK’s chief standards watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
And so cue the argument for Mr Osborne to step down from his position as a MP immediately. This is not just on the basis of money, but also on the basis of the conflict of interest argument.
Claims of a conflict of interest between his membership of the third and fourth estates -and between his City and newspaper roles – are loud. It has to be said: how can Mr Osborne edit a newspaper, de facto positioning it along a political axis, whilst undertaking advisory work at BlackRock? How will he juggle engaging in private MP meetings, and overseeing political columns?
The former Chancellor’s break into journalism will give him considerably more influence than he would have as just a humble backbencher. Might it just offer him a means to exacting revenge on his political rivals?
It was noticeable that Number Ten was not in the loop over the former Chancellor’s work. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was rendered speechless when the news was broken to him in his regular morning briefing.
Mr Osborne himself has made clear he would not be above giving his own government a hard time:
“We will judge what the government, London’s politicians and the political parties do against this simple test: is it good for our readers and good for London? If it is, we’ll support them. If it isn’t, we’ll be quick to say so.”
It might be argued that by taking on the position of editor of a newspaper with an estimated circulation of one million in the City of London, Mr Osborne might just be able to wield some political influence, namely through the political position adopted by the paper.
The main issue is that of Brexit: the former Chancellor was firmly on board with former Prime Minister David Cameron in campaigning for Remain. The current government is tasked with acquiring and implementing Brexit, but seems keen to go a step further than merely withdrawing from the EU – exit from the Single Market has been voiced. Mrs May has been adamant in her stance that there will not be an ongoing briefing to Parliament during negotiations – probably to prevent any criticism at home from weakening her position. Nevertheless, the media will still cover the negotiations to the best of their ability – the coverage – and angle – offered by the Standard during this time will be interesting.
Moreover, whilst Mr Osborne will no doubt be careful not to attack Mrs May personally, he could just use the paper to campaign for policies that will put him on a collision course with her instincts for more state invention on economics and immigration, on the basis that these are issues particularly important for London.
But any potential power of this position should not be overestimated. It should be remembered that the Standard’s current track record of persuasion is not exactly impressive. The Standard did come out in favour of Remain (check out that not-exactly-complementary reference to George Osborne) during the EU referendum last year, and London as a whole did vote Remain. However, on the basis of party politics: the Standard supported the Conservative Party in the general election of 2015, but it was the Labour Party who dominated. Moreover, the Standard supported Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith in the 2016 London Mayoral election (who had announced his support for the UK to leave the EU) – Labour candidate Sadiq Khan was the victor.
Spare a thought during all of this for the constituents of Tatton. How must they feel, knowing their MP has multiple jobs and has declared himself a ‘Londoner’? As the MP for Tatton, Mr Osborne has duties in the North of England which do not align with his new-found duties as a newspaper editor in the South.
No doubt there will be more coverage of this story, and further developments. It is something to note though that on the same week the Prime Minister publicly reversed her Chancellor’s announcement on his policy of NI and the self employed – to his embarrassment, surely – the former Chancellor has proven he is quite content with life outside of the Cabinet circle – and that he hasn’t gone away.