George Osborne accused of breaching rules with Evening Standard job

Rowena Mason and Damien Gayle
Osborne faces calls to quit as an MP after saying he would combine his work in parliament with his various private sector roles. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

The Cabinet Office is facing calls to investigate George Osborne’s decision to take a job as editor of the Evening Standard without the approval of the watchdog on former ministerial appointments.

Andrew Gwynne, a shadow Cabinet Office minister, said he wanted to raise concerns about about a potential breach of the ministerial code, as the advisory committee on business appointments had not yet given its judgment on the new role.

There have been calls for Osborne to resign as MP following the announcement that he would combine his roles in parliament with the editorship, an advisory job at BlackRock investment firm earning £650,000 a year, lucrative speaking engagements, and the chairmanship of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

It also emerged on Saturday that the former chancellor only decided to apply for the editor’s job at the Evening Standard after friends contacted him to ask for advice on whether they should apply for the role.

Rohan Silva, a former Downing Street adviser who worked closely with Osborne in government, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that he had called to congratulate his former boss and asked him why he had applied for the job. “He said that a bunch of people had been calling him up asking him for advice on whether they should vie for the editorship job, and after a few of these calls he sort of thought to himself, ‘Hang on, this is something I really want to do,’” Silva said.

He said Osborne’s world view matched that of the Standard and Londoners more broadly, making him a good fit for the job. “He thinks that global trade is broadly a good thing, rather than a bad thing; he thinks that high-skilled immigration is a good thing; he thinks Britain should be an open, liberal society,” Silva said.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, criticised Osborne’s job as an example of a “rotten system” as he spoke at a Labour economic conference in Newcastle on Saturday. “The former chancellor is heading off to edit a London newspaper,” he said. “At the same time, he’s going to be advising the world’s biggest asset manager, working four days a month for £650,000 a year. All while still being paid for his job as an MP. How can he properly represent his constituents in Cheshire when he’s editing a newspaper for London?”

A petition on the website 38 Degrees demanding Osborne chose between being an MP and editing the Standard reached more than 100,000 signatures on Saturday.

In his letter to the Cabinet Office, Gwynne asked John Manzoni, the head of the civil service, and Sue Gray, the head of ethics at the Cabinet Office, to investigate whether Osborne followed the proper process after leaving office eight months ago, when Theresa May sacked him as chancellor.

The advisory committee on business appointments told him that “advice should be sought on all appointments, paid or unpaid, before they are taken up or announced”, and that the “the committee is unable to offer retrospective advice on appointments that have already been announced”.

Gwynne wrote: “Today many were again concerned to find that Mr Osborne had repeated this procedure, announcing his new role at the London Evening Standard prior to consulting the advisory committee on business appointments,” .

“The rules on business appointments are established to counter suspicion that the decisions and statements of a serving minister might be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm or organisation; and that an employer could make improper use of official information to which a former minister has had access to.

“Disregarding these rules deeply undermines public trust in the democratic processes and does a disservice to those members that ensure they follow the rules laid out on these matters.”

Speaking in his role as a north-west MP, Gwynne said: “The lack of respect he’s shown to his role as member of parliament is a disgrace and it looks like his plans for a ‘northern powerhouse’ will be joining all the other broken Tory manifesto promises.

“With this new four-day post at the London Evening Standard and his one-day-a-week post at BlackRock – I have no idea how he is able to claim to spend any time representing the north-west, a region that myself and many of my Labour colleagues fight for every day.”

Conservatives have also questioned whether Osborne would be able to represent his constituents effectively while editing a daily paper on top of a string of lucrative jobs. Others accused him of seeking to undermine Theresa May. One party source said MPs would be contacting their whips to express dismay. The chief whip, Gavin Williamson, is likely to face pressure on Monday to make an example of Osborne.

Ryan Shorthouse, the director of Bright Blue, a Tory thinktank, said he expected Osborne to stand down as an MP. “A free press, which holds power to account, is a fundamental part of a liberal democracy,” he said.

“A sitting MP, especially of the governing party, cannot also be an editor of an influential and national newspaper. It is a significant conflict of interest and unethical. The [former] chancellor has spoken eloquently about the importance and goodness of liberal democracies. So, if he is to be editor of the London Evening Standard, he must – and I suspect will – resign as an MP.”

Saturday newspaper editorials reacted to Osborne’s surprise appointment with words of caution for him. The Times, a sometime employer of Osborne’s former cabinet colleague, Michael Gove, said he should “be aware … of the potential for conflicts of interest”.

It said that while he edits the Standard in the morning, Osborne will have to “think like a ruthless scrutineer, seeking the story those in government most want to hide”, and by afternoon “be the prime minister’s supplicant, falling into line with her whips”.

Gove wished Osborne well in his new role, saying he welcomed “high-quality recruits to the world of journalism”. He avoided the question of whether he had been in line for the Standard job himself.

“The thing is, I’m a columnist rather than an editor,” he said at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. “So I know that the right thing to do with editors is always to say, ‘yes, sir’ and the columnists should concentrate on their own particular role.”

The Daily Telegraph, which pays the Tory Brexit campaign’s poster boy, Boris Johnson, to fill column inches, said Osborne, whose Tatton seat faces the axe at the next general election, may have been “thinking of his own future first”.

It suggested the remain MP was joining the growing “liberal elite” outside parliament, and that he could use the new role to try to establish a “coherent force” outside the Commons to hold the prime minister to account.

It noted, however: “The irony of this appointment is that it will confirm the suspicion that militant remain today is a cosy, elitist project dominated by the capital. Rejection of the establishment is why some people voted Brexit. A remain crusade run by the establishment is unlikely to win them back.”

The Guardian’s leader welcomed Osborne to the trade as “Britain’s most celebrated trainee journalist”, noting that it was the first time a former chancellor had edited a daily paper, though journalists have become chancellors before. “Editing is hard, full-time work,” it said. “Something will have to give” in his portfolio, it went on – though “it should not be the journalism”.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes