Inside Story

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3267 words

Yesterday’s man, tomorrow

30 March 2017

A Conservative chancellor turned newspaper editor may influence politics, and Brexit, in unexpected ways


All that life can give: former UK chancellor George Osborne. Ninian Reid/Flickr

All that life can give: former UK chancellor George Osborne. Ninian Reid/Flickr

“Goodbye EU, Goodbye Scotland, Goodbye Dave, Goodbye Tomorrow, Hello Little England, Hello Boris, Hello Fear, Hello Yesterday.” The words of Robert Sheffield, art dealer and half-brother of Samantha Cameron, were posted within hours of the United Kingdom’s vote to depart the European Union on 23 June last year. Nine months on, as London at last gives formal notice to Brussels of its intention to leave, they stand up pretty well before the bar of history.

Brexit spun the country, and people’s hearts and minds, inside out. That same morning, Sam’s husband David quit as prime minister and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon opened the bidding for a second independence referendum. Theresa May soon arrived in Downing Street and, though a “remainer,” embraced with gusto a tough stance on the terms of withdrawal, appointing prominent “leavers” – including Boris Johnson – to key roles. Both parts of Ireland shivered at the prospect of a “hard border” between an EU south and non-EU north. Businesses nervously examined their options. European residents worried about their status. The victors seemed less optimistic than vengeful; many clothed their national vision in the garments of an impossibilist past.

The end of the beginning has now arrived: a two-year negotiating period, as specified in Article 50 of the relevant EU treaty, which will no doubt have a much longer tailwind.

Beyond recognising the difficulties to come, there is no consensus in Britain over what is either desirable or achievable in crucial areas, from trade deals and financial regulations to consumer rights and environmental standards. Political hurdles on the continent and in the multinational UK are among the many known unknowns. Such uncertainty is as much a challenge to Brexit-sceptics as to its cheerleaders (who like to call the former “remoaners”). Waiting for failure would be politically unwise as well as an abdication of responsibility, but shaping the process requires a coherence of outlook and support that is not yet there. 

Two of the most thoughtful speeches addressing this problem came last month from ex-prime ministers John Major (offering a “reality check on our national prospects, and warning against over-optimism”) and Tony Blair (seeking to avert “the present rush over the cliff’s edge.”) For their efforts, both men were spattered by Brexiteer mud, though faint signs suggest that the noxious and politically regressive tide of Blair-hatred may be receding. The former Labour leader contends that “it is the British people’s right to change their mind” and wants “to persuade them to do so.” Here, William Hague, foreign minister in Cameron’s government and a former remainer, is closer to the mark: “A serious effort to reverse the referendum outcome would cause more division, bitterness and uncertainty than would ever be worth it.”

It would be more productive to focus on the future and the optimal feasible outcome, a comprehensive trade deal plus a close partnership where security and political interests overlap. The six-page letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk, president of the European council, on 29 March, is significant in this respect. It may be “an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” as the prime minister told the House of Commons. But its conciliatory tone, with the hint of explosive compromises to come, will alarm the more boorish Brexiteers.

Explosive compromises to come? Britain’s prime minister Theresa May signing her letter of notification to the president of the European Council earlier this week. Number 10

Any gathering of forces among constructive post-remainers is still some way off. It will require strategic, optimistic arguments with popular appeal from different points on the political spectrum, and influential media to host them. That puts George Osborne in an intriguing position: former Conservative chancellor, or treasurer, member of parliament, financial adviser, and now – to considerable fury as well as astonishment – editor of London’s leading newspaper, the Evening Standard.

In an unremittingly bleak political landscape, the appointment was met by a palpable frisson. In government, Osborne was regarded as a precocious mix of Smiley and Machiavelli, and very much a future contender for his party’s leadership. The foray into journalism creates an opening for him to become the most interesting person, as well as the most brazen, in British politics. He has yet to make a splash at the paper’s Kensington office. But if and when he does, it might just begin to water the parched Brexit scene.

“Newspaper editor turns politician” is a story with an archival rather than a living feel, at least in the British context. C.P. Scott, who steered the Manchester Guardian for fifty-seven years from 1872, carried his Liberal convictions into the House of Commons in 1895. The young, fiery socialist Michael Foot edited the Evening Standard for three wartime years, falling under the spell of its Canadian proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, before became a Labour member of parliament in the party’s 1945 landslide.

“Politician turns newspaper editor” lacks even this slender patrimony. For that very reason it would be topline news at any time. So it was with the 17 March announcement that George Osborne would take the reins of the London daily, which was bought in 2009 by the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and has since been run by his son, the dual-national businessman Evgeny Lebedev. Equally noteworthy is that the forty-five-year-old, reshuffled out of government by the new prime minister in the wake of the Brexit decision, intends to devote his mornings to the task while keeping his day job as MP for Tatton, a prosperous cluster thirteen miles south of Manchester in northwest England.

Admixed with the shock is moral outrage at Osborne’s perceived self-aggrandisement. The Evening Standard role extends a lucrative post-cabinet portfolio that includes advice to the huge fund manager BlackRock (forty-eight days a year for £650,000, or A$1 million), joining there his influential former chief-of-staff Rupert Harrison; a Kissinger fellowship at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; and regular fees from the Washington Speakers Bureau (a single month accrued £320,000, or A$515,000). He also chairs a think-tank promoting the “northern powerhouse,” a regeneration plan he launched in government. All that is in addition to an MP’s salary of just under £75,000, or A$120,000, plus substantial allowances for office, staff, constituency and London residences, and travel.

Close behind the money is concern about potential breaches of parliamentary rules. Recurrent scandals since the mid 1990s – over cash for questions, honours and influence, and over party donations and MPs’ expenses – have triggered patchwork reform. The most recent, involving Tory breaches of electoral spending laws in 2015, may yet go to court with damaging results for the party.

Osborne’s démarche is not in the same category, but it is being investigated by the advisory committee on business appointments – which says it should have been consulted in advance – and by the committee of standards in public life, with reference to the question of “how much time MPs have to devote to their parliamentary work.” Osborne himself, in characteristically jaunty form, told the chamber on 20 March that “this parliament is enhanced when we have people from all walks of life and different experience in the debate,” echoing the point in a placatory letter to constituents.

More serious still are warnings about possible conflicts of interest. The Standard has a circulation of 850,000, a tenth of the city’s population, having taken the bold step of cancelling its cover price in 2009 in the attempt to align a much wider readership with strong advertising revenues. Can the paper’s coverage of financial and political matters be insulated from Osborne’s own interests, affiliations and sources of employment? The Financial Times’s John Gapper says the conflicts are “flagrant and obvious” and that Osborne should “reflect and change his mind before someone else does it for him.”

A final arrow in the critics’ quiver is that his lack of journalistic experience makes him unfit for the job. But Osborne’s interest in the Standard, reputedly piqued by friends who sought his advice on their own applications, may also involve reawakened ambition: after graduating in history from Oxford in 1993 he tried unsuccessfully to join the Times and the Economist; four years later, in the wake of a stint with John Major’s doomed re-election campaign against Tony Blair’s New Labour, he approached the Times with the same result. The blue blood in Osborne’s veins may have a shot of printers’ ink.

And blue there is: Osborne’s father is the holder of a baronetcy linked to colonial Ireland, a hereditary title that George, as the eldest of four brothers, will assume. The family’s high-end fabric and wallpaper design firm, established in 1968, is a stylish success. Osborne’s wife Frances, a former barrister and now full-time writer, also has aristocratic lineage. Her father was a cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first government.

Any life’s texture is always more complicated than such detail allows. Neither parent, for example, was Tory by inclination. His mother had studied Mandarin and worked as a desk officer at Amnesty International. “It’s not as if I grew up in a stately home with a deer park,” Osborne mildly protested in 2008. From his upbringing in Bayswater, west London, and, inevitably, private schooling emerged “a son of post-modern, post-national London,” a figure in whom “modernity and cosmopolitanism are assumed and not evangelised.” That assessment belongs to the peerless Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh, whose 2012 study of the “austerity chancellor” was updated in 2014, when the economy and Osborne’s public reputation were inching upward from a low base.

George Osborne “is loath to accept life as something that simply happens to a person,” says Ganesh – or, to put it more expansively, he is out for life and all that life can give.

In modern British politics, a gilded background can be an ambiguous asset, opening doors but tainting its bearer with the aura of unearned privilege. Yet by the time Osborne’s close ally David Cameron, also the scion of a wealthy family, became Conservative leader in 2005 after the party’s third consecutive election drubbing, this new generation’s social profile had become – thanks to its political opponents – a lesser-grade worry.

Two prime ministers of modest origins, Thatcher and Major, had promoted individual aspiration and mobility as the means to overcome disadvantage. New Labour’s reformist, inclusive and ostensibly classless zeal both seized the territory and changed the problematic. “What works?” was now held to matter more than origin, name or school. This offered a shaft of light to intelligent figures in a Conservative Party that had grown carelessly antagonistic to swathes of the population whose votes it needed. “Some call us ‘the nasty party’,” party chair Theresa May told members in 2002.

The would-be modernisers grasped that the path to recovery lay in realigning the Tories with the more liberal, open and demotic Britain that Tony Blair had enabled. Osborne, the junior by five years, was the artful and influential strategist to Cameron’s plausible frontman.

The New Labour adviser Philip Gould’s book, The Unfinished Revolution, was an indispensable manual, its vital lesson the need to avoid becoming hostage to the party’s extremes. By emulating the early Blair’s nimble political style, and benefiting from the ponderousness of his two successors as party leader, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the duo gained power in 2010 and, after five years of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, leveraged a plurality into an unexpected outright majority. 

The rise of the Cameron–Osborne duopoly was no exception to a cast-iron rule: any attempted Conservative makeover will face blowback from inside the party. Those alienated after 2005 included defeated rivals, Thatcher-era nostalgics, free-market ultras, and hardline anti-Europeans (often the same people). Once in government with Liberal Democrat rivals, ministerial patronage was constrained, and after each reshuffle the ranks of the spurned or demoted grew. On the Labour side, Miliband’s sophomoric leadership clearly preferred the seminar room to engaging voters. The government was tested more by the new, restless, borderless, always-on space of amplified dissent and anti-politics, facilitated by converging media.

In this fuzzy context, with the government lacking a single party colour for the first time since 1945, a convenient mainstay was found in the cut of Cameron and Osborne’s jib. References to their university membership of “Bullingdon,” an exclusive dining-and-mayhem club for male Oxford students of the right credentials, became a public fixture, even the theme of a conspiracist play. “Gideon,” the name Osborne so disliked that he chose to adopt another at age thirteen, was routinely thrown at him. “Posh boys who don’t know the price of milk,” the well-rehearsed jibe of a vacuous backbench Tory, went viral.

Political rhetoric was acquiring a class-sharpened edge. That seemed fitting when Conservative “toffs,” “plutocrats,” and a “trust-fund chancellor” from central casting were slicing budgets, and the Occupy movement and Thomas Piketty’s Capital were inspiring  debate about inequality and capitalism. But the ubiquity and longevity of such gleeful sneers were dismaying. They quickly became a self-congratulatory code, detached from their putative object: substitute for rather than accessory to political argument. A hundred Miliband forays labouring the theme, a thousand Mirror columns and a million tweets made nothing happen, nor likely shifted a single vote, unless in the wrong direction. The 2010s is the decade when superannuated anti-Toryism became the new socialism of fools.

The resilience of the Cameron–Osborne axis lay in freedom from the tensions that afflicted Blair’s relationship with Gordon Brown, his glowering chancellor and New Labour co-architect. In part that was a matter of temperament, but it also reflected an intelligent willingness to learn from the experience of these adversaries. Their financial inheritance, by contrast, had been much worse than New Labour’s in 1997. Osborne’s comfortless oversight of a static, debt-laden, post-crash economy fuelled his own unpopularity, which became audible in mass booing at the London Paralympics medals ceremony in 2012.

That mid-term moment, which followed the so-called “omnishambles” budget, presaged another severe cut, this time to Osborne’s floppy black curls (“half-mod, half-Caesar” says Ganesh, who knows about these things). A bravura restyling, overseen by his new adviser Thea Rogers, continued with a purposeful circuit of industrial sites, ever geared up with hard hat and fluorescent jacket, championing his much touted “march of the makers.” Barack Obama’s repeatedly calling him “Jeffrey Osborne” at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in 2013 – the name of the American president’s favourite R&B singer – was an inadvertent humaniser. There was even a cautious improvement in the cyclical stats, if not the awful fundamentals. The newly slimline Osborne was still broadly disliked by an understandably sullen public. But at last it was game on: for the chancellor’s image, the election, even the succession. 

Behind the scenes, there had always been substance. Osborne’s “influence across the range of government was immense,” Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh write. So was his role in the 2015 election: an aide present at the daily campaign meetings, quoted in the same book, says that when any proposal was aired, “We, including Cameron, waited for George to speak.” Osborne put Lynton Crosby’s drumbeat formula “long-term economic plan” at the campaign’s heart. That followed three visits to Australia in 2014 for G20 summits, where his warm words for John Howard were balanced by recognition that “the Liberal Party in Australia makes the British Conservative party look positively, well, liberal.”

The Conservatives’ twelve-seat majority, with a further cushion from effective allies in Northern Ireland, restored a dominance last achieved in 1992. Labour’s crushing defeat, followed by a far-left buyout, ensured its irrelevance. In an illuminating profile by Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, Osborne says he “looked on in complete astonishment” as “the whole of the Labour Party moves leftwards, abandoning the centre, and I think therefore abandoning the working people of this country.”

Scotland’s pro-independence party won a landslide there, but an early repeat of the 2014 referendum looked unlikely. Along with the economy, the biggest concern was the promised vote on European Union membership that would follow a renegotiation of terms. Win that, and longer-term hegemony for Cameron’s party was near assured. His campaign pledge to step down before 2020 would then favour Osborne’s leadership chances. Lose the vote, and all bets were off.

So it came to pass. Leave won by 52.9 to 47.1 per cent, on a turnout of 65.3 per cent of the voting age population. Joining the European community in 1973 was instantly downgraded from a culmination of Britain’s postwar history to a passing phase. The dalliance had lasted only two years longer than the imperial preference scheme agreed at the 1932 Ottawa conference, which might make 2060 a date to watch.

The Metro Conservative era was over. Not that May, very much a moderniser where the promotion of women in politics is concerned, is a Retro Conservative, though her leadership so far has a vintage feel – which arguably makes it today’s fashion. She and the Tories enjoy polling leads in double figures, while the great black hole that is Jeremy Corbyn turns everything in its field of negative energy to dust. “The debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit,” Blair rightly says.

The febrile post-Brexit weeks made the transition from Cameron to May, with Osborne among the collateral damage, appear equally convulsive. Now it looks seamless – even, for their party, cathartic. But the wider political consequences, amplified by the destructive conceit of the Miliband–Corbyn era, are baleful. Brexitannia lacks a serious opposition. During the state’s biggest challenges since 1945, that democratic deficit is also an impediment to good governance.

Any remedy is not for tomorrow. When it comes, it can only be from a reformulated centre able to “give answers, not ride the anger” (Blair again). It will be liberal, patriotic, optimistic, for Europe and globalisation and their reform. It will have to learn from its adversary, just as each formation from Thatcherism through New Labour and the Conservative modernisers had the wit to do. And it will be serious about power. The alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit will be found in the space between Tony Blair and George Osborne, or it won’t be found at all. Now more than ever in British politics, as the new editor of the Evening Standard knows very well, losers can’t be choosers if they want to become winners. •

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Bruce Grant (centre) with the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (left) and British journalist Neville Maxwell.

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