Hearing about George Osborne's new job was not quite on a par with turning on the radio to hear "John Major had an affair with Edwina Currie" – but it's not far off it. "George Osborne" was trending on Twitter within minutes of his genuinely surprising appointment as editor of the London Evening Standard being announced. If my phone was anything to go by "Osborne - WTF!!" should have been trending too.
Given newspaper people love nothing better than talking about themselves, we can fully expect far more column inches will be devoted to this news than issues like child poverty now being higher than at any time since the start of the decade, all state schools being expected to face cuts by 2020, or mental health budgets being raided to cover up NHS debt, all of which could in part be traced back to his time as chancellor. Even the Brexit madness may take a back seat for a day or two as the political and media classes absorb, digest and obsess over this development.
You do not need to waste too much time on Twitter to see that to most journalists, and to many others, his appointment as an editor is about as shocking and inappropriate, and he as an individual just as unqualified, as Donald Trump becoming President.
There is also the question of whether or not being an MP should be considered a full time job to the exclusion of all others. I have never been wholly persuaded of that one. After all, until the calamitous referendum, he was both MP for Tatton and chancellor of the exchequer with considerable responsibility for running one of the six biggest economies in the world. Mrs May having relieved him of these latter duties post calamity, it is hard to say that suddenly he became capable only of being a diligent and dutiful backbench constituency MP. I have not seen any such criticism pointed the way of Michael Gove, who since being sacked from the Cabinet has devoted more time to journalism than to politics, not least acting as Rupert Murdoch's ventriloquist dummy on a visit to Trump Tower.
There are other criticisms of Osborne with which I have more sympathy. The first concerns the question of where his priorities will lie. Even in the way his new job was announced – he is apparently "London through and through" – the tensions became apparent. How can you be London through and through when your seat is in the north of England and one of the strategies with which you are most associated, and to whose success he says he remains as committed as ever, is the so-called Northern Powerhouse?
Jonathan Bartley: If Osborne wants to be editor of the Evening Standard, he must step down as an MP
There is also the question of money, and appearances. Here is a man on whose watch the rich got considerably richer while the poor got poorer and the Just About Managing (my God hasn't Mrs Brexit means Brexit come up with come up with some awful phrases?) aren't managing much better at all. Osborne, despite being the architect of austerity and helping to devise the strategy which lost the referendum and led to his demise, has been managing very well indeed. More than half a million for a part time job with an American investment giant. And ratcheting up five and close to six figure speaking fees with an alacrity (he is already close to his first speaking million) that suggests either he is hard up, greedy, or has an obsession with collecting air miles.
Now given his background, and the fact that a small fortune will come his way when his father passes away, I am not convinced any of the above fully explains his post calamity activities. Were that the case, he might well have followed the path of his friend and partner in crime, David Cameron who, now he is out of Parliament, does not have to tell the public just how much he is earning.
It strikes me that Osborne has made several related decisions. The first, and most important, is to stay in politics. The second is to remain ambitious for a return to the top flight, including the very top. The third is that given politicians get flak for making anything outside the day job, he has decided he might as well go big. He would get slagged off by some for jetting across the world to make ten grand for a twenty minute speech. So he might as well be in for a penny, in for a pound, and go for a hundred grand. The fourth reason relates to what he plans to do with the money. My hunch is that he is building a little war chest sufficient to give himself the freedom to drop everything (including the Standard) should either a return to the Cabinet or, more likely, a leadership election, hove into view.
My hunch is that he is building a little war chest sufficient to give himself the freedom to drop everything should either a return to the Cabinet or, more likely, a leadership election
Now to some the idea that Osborne could be the next Tory leader might seem fanciful in the extreme. But it is not that long ago that the chances of Mrs May becoming Prime Minister were put by most MPs at somewhere between slight and non-existent. And there she is, pursuing her Brexit on steroids policy and behaving not like the unelected PM she is but a regal figure who believes with the Opposition so weak she can get away with pretty much anything.
Osborne, publicly and other than with his nearest and dearest privately, has been remarkably nice about Mrs May considering what she did to him. But I think it is fair to say he doesn't particularly like her, doesn't particularly respect her, and doesn't particularly rate the way she has handled Brexit thus far. He might not see exactly how at this stage, but he can certainly see, with times so unpredictable, that her security depends on a lot more than Jeremy Corbyn opposing her across the Despatch Box. It depends on Brexit going well and that is far from certain. It depends on the economy going well and the Budget this week having rivalled and even beaten Osborne's omnishambles of a few years ago, that is far from certain too.
If he is really smart he will allow someone on his first day to write a column criticising both his economic management as Chancellor, and the fact of his editorship.
Being the former Chancellor means he will always have a voice and some people will always be interested to hear it. But being the editor of a paper like The Standard means that voice is amplified considerably. It also makes him a voice of the here and now, not just the past. For him then, strategically, this move makes perfect sense and he has a thick enough skin not to worry too much about the sullen faces of the journalists when he showed up at the Standard today. He is smart enough to know he will need to allow a pluralism of voices and if he is really smart he will allow someone on his first day to write a column criticising both his economic management as Chancellor, and the fact of his editorship.
The Standard has a disproportionate influence because of where it comes from. London. It is read by MPs, the chatterati, opinion formers, business leaders, diplomats. People will be more interested in it because of who the editor now is. Every move will have a little extra piquancy. Osborne will be able to set an agenda if he wishes, and if it happens to be against the interests of his party leader, he will be able to cite this as the view of others. He will, to coin a phrase used by the man who still sees himself as Mrs May's likeliest successor – dream on Boris Johnson – "have his cake and eat it."
Whereas Cameron has wandered off the stage, he has stayed and remains of the view that Brexit will be a disaster... If he is true to his beliefs and, more importantly, to the readers, he will use the paper to put the kind of scrutiny on the government Brexit strategy that the Brextremist Lie Machine papers are refusing to do.
Because Osborne was so loyal to Cameron, it is perhaps not as widely appreciated as it should be just how much against the idea of holding the referendum he was. In the campaign, unlike Mrs May, whose fights for Remain were half-hearted at best, sabotage at worst, he fought hard but failed. But whereas Cameron has wandered off the stage, he has stayed and remains of the view that Brexit will be a disaster. London is a Remain city. Business has many many concerns about Brexit. The Standard will play an important role through the process. If he is true to his beliefs and, more importantly, to the readers, he will use the paper to put the kind of scrutiny on the government Brexit strategy that the Brextremist Lie Machine papers are refusing to do.
He can also, if he has guts, fight to change the media culture. As Tom Watson rather wittily tweeted, Osborne is now the only editor totally supportive of the changes proposed after the Leveson Inquiry. He should fight for Leveson 2. He also shares the antipathy most decent people feel to the way the Mail covers our national life, and distaste for the way Mrs May allows its editor Paul Dacre to set her agenda. He is again in a position to do something about it and show a different approach.
As often, in writing I have been following the dictum of Marilyn Monroe who once wrote that it was best to "think in ink." In that time I have moved somewhat from "WTF!!" to "this could be interesting." I suspect Mrs May has too, albeit not with a smile on her face. Her life just got a bit more difficult.
Alastair Campbell is a British strategist and writer, best known for his work as Director of Communications and Strategy for Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is the author of 12 books and Ambassador for mental health campaign Time to Change. Follow : @campbellclaret
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