So George Osborne is to be the the new editor of The Evening Standard, taking over from Sarah Sands when she shifts over to edit the Today Programme on Radio 4.
From gamekeeper to poacher, who would have thought it? It’s as if the Lord Chief Justice was to carry on as a judge while taking over Ian Hislop’s job at Private Eye. On June 23 Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer, gung-ho for Remain. On July 13, after his credibility was swept from under him by the Brexit vote, he was out. But hang on, he wasn’t done yet. He was still an MP and there was money to be made on the global speaking circuit, telling the world how he secretly got it right. Big five-figure cheques kept him off the streets, with a lucrative consultancy to come as an advisor to Blackrock, the world’s largest fund manager. A well-worn path, you’d have to say. No possible conflict of interest there. And a chap has to earn a crust.
But editor of the Standard! I am put in mind of Thomas Moore’s famous put-down to his protegee Richard Rich (as scripted by Robert Bolt in a Man for All Seasons), when he learns that the latter has betrayed him in return for a job offer as attorney-general for Wales: “Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . but for Wales!”
It gets better, though. Not only has Osborne been appointed editor-elect of the Standard, now a freesheet owned by Evgeny Lebedev, son of the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, but it is to be part-time appointment, run in combination with his job as MP for the Cheshire seat of Tatton, some 165 miles north of the capital.
Osborne, apparently, will only turn up in the Commons in the afternoons after he has seen the Standard off the presses chock-full of news and gossip about Downing Street, Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster.
Not so much Chinese walls as insider trading. We have to assume that if he himself should be the subject of political gossip, or if he launches a bid for the leadership of the Tory party in the event Theresa May falls on her Brexit sword, that we will learn about it first in the pages of the Standard.
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Imagine how such stories might be covered. “Osborne humilated after failed bid to topple May.” He’d run that as the splash. “Osborne organises night of the long knives” – naughty, but a first-class lead for the Londoner’s Diary. Or, “Former chancellor vindicated as Brexit talks go down the tubes”. One, perhaps, for Max Hastings. No doubt George would choose the headlines himself.
At least he will not be out of step with the Standard line on Europe, which might be characterised as, the EU was bloody good for London and Brexit is a disaster waiting to happen. Hmm… wonder if Dave might be interested in writing a column.
Ozzie himself is in no doubt that his two jobs can easily be rolled into one.
“I am proud to be a Conservative MP,” he told his readers, “but as editor and leader of a team of dedicated and independent journalists, our only interest will be to give a voice to all Londoners. We will be fearless as a paper fighting for their interests. 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.”
So much for the Northern Powerhouse. But good to know that in addition to being dedicated (at least until lunchtime), he will at all times – including, one assume, on the floor of the House and with rival hacks in Annie’s Bar – be a fearless and independent voice.
At least Bill Deedes (much beloved by those who didn’t know him) had the decency to leave the Commons before taking on the editorship of the Daily Telegraph. Deedes could also point to years spent as a correspondent before he ever entered politics.
By contrast, Osborne was turned down as a graduate trainee by The Times back in 1993, then rejected by the Economist, winding up briefly as number 94 on the Telegraph’s Peterborough column before deserting the fourth estate for a job at Conservative Central Office. So it could be said that he is starting at the top. Which means he has quite a long way to fall.