If George Osborne had stayed in the Commons, he could have demanded a return to the Cabinet on his own terms. The Prime Minister is so weak, and so anxious to maintain some kind of party unity by bringing potential troublemakers into the government, she could not have refused to bring back the former Chancellor, just as she has brought back Michael Gove.
But Osborne stood down at this election, and is instead editing The Evening Standard. His admirers say it is “a tragedy” he opted for journalism rather than politics. They point to the irony that Osborne used to make strenuous efforts to persuade friends such as Jo Johnson, who worked for The Financial Times, to forsake journalism for the altogether more serious business of running the country.
Journalism has, however, its compensations, one of which is the freedom Osborne now enjoys to say exactly what he thinks of Theresa May. His ferocious attacks on the woman who did not lift a finger to help the Remain side in the referendum campaign, and then told him as she sacked him that he needed to get to know the party better, have won him new and unexpected friends.
On Sunday, Polly Toynbee, star columnist of The Guardian and scourge of the Tories, beamed fondly at Osborne as they sat beside each other on Andrew Marr’s sofa. She said of his newspaper, which he has now been editing for six weeks:
“Your pages have been pure poison against Theresa May. It’s been wonderful to read, absolutely relished it with total joy… I read [your editorials] with delight.”
That is quite a testimonial, and fully deserved. For as Osborne had just told Marr:
“Oh yeah, Theresa May is a dead woman walking. It’s just how long she’s going to remain on death row, and I think we will know very shortly. In other words, we could easily get to the middle of next week and it could all collapse for her, or if it doesn’t, and I agree with Toby [Young], there are many Tory MPs who don’t want a leadership contest right now, it’ll be delayed. But be in no doubt, look at this weekend, you’ve got the Leader of the Opposition coming on the programme as a sort of victor, and you’ve got the Prime Minister, who’s supposed to have won the election, in hiding, and that tells you volumes about what’s gone on.”
Osborne is using the pages of his newspaper to take revenge on May. Each morning he arrives at Northcliffe House, in Kensington, at about seven. He is a very fast worker, and writes his own leaders attacking her, as well as masterminding many other disobliging bits of coverage.
“He really does have it in for the PM,” as one of his staff remarks. Not that inside knowledge is required to see that. Here is a relatively temperate passage from the editorial published on the eve of the election, in which the Standard advised its readers to vote Conservative, but also said:
“The current Conservative leadership is moving further away from the social and economic liberalism that has made our country and its capital a global success story. That is the wrong direction. Their legitimate attempt to address the concerns of those who feel left behind by globalisation has ended with them stigmatising the value that immigration brings to Britain, and it has produced a misguided programme of intervention in business.”
Osborne has brought back the daily political cartoon, an excellent editorial decision, and on every possible occasion it is used to mock May. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister was drawn, under the heading “Strong and Stable”, flicking a V sign at Philip Hammond, who in turn is shaking his fist at her, while between them the portion of Downing Street linking Number 10 to Number 11 has been reduced to rubble.
On Friday of last week, we saw the Prime Minister in the pocket of an Orangeman, on Monday she appeared bound and gagged between Hammond and Gove at her first Cabinet meeting, while on Tuesday she was seen leaving the 1922 Committee, and saying “Well that went well”, unaware that she is marching over a cliff.
Osborne has likewise expanded the number of daily comment pieces, in journalistic terms another good move. On Monday, Bruce Anderson was wheeled out to describe her as “the worst ever Tory Prime Minister” (Lord Bute will be relieved), while on the same day the front-page splash informed us that she has been “sidelined” by Cabinet ministers, known as the “Sensibles”, who are “reaching out to Labour MPs and European leaders who share their fears over jobs and stability”.
The editor of The Evening Standard did not quite get any of these ministers to break cover. But in Poland, his old friend David Cameron warned that “over Brexit, she is going to have to talk more widely, listen to other parties”.
And in London, another friend of Osborne, Lord Bridges, resigned as a Brexit minister. As Osborne’s biographer, Janan Ganesh, observes, “George Bridges, one of the Conservative Party’s most able and genial operatives in recent years, has been indispensable to Osborne’s life and career.”
For it was on the recommendation of Bridges that in 1994, Osborne got his first job in politics, in the Conservative Research Department, and it was at a dinner organised by Bridges that in 1996 Osborne met his future wife, Frances Howell.
Some were doubtful whether Osborne could make the transition from politics to journalism. They forgot that he had already written some very good journalism, for example the pieces about American presidents which he did for The Spectator. Here is the opening paragraph from his article about the Clintons, published in 2003:
“A friend of mine recently sat next to Bill Clinton at dinner. She was dazzled by his brilliance as he gave her a private tutorial on world problems from HIV/Aids to terrorism. Occasionally, she said, to emphasise a point, he would run his fingers down her spine. At the end of dinner, he removed his leg, which had been pressed up hard against hers all evening, and in his Arkansas drawl said, ‘I thought that was the table leg.'”
One may note Osborne’s interest in getting to know influential people, and his willingness to share some of the amusing things he discovers: a combination of qualities useful in journalism. He also foresees, at the end of the piece, that Hillary Clinton is pretty much certain to end up running for the presidency in 2008, which she did, only to be beaten by Barack Obama.
At Oxford, Osborne edited Isis, an achievement of which he was sufficiently proud to have the two issues for which he was responsible framed and displayed in his Downing Street flat.
And in 1997, when Tony Blair swept into power, he applied for jobs on The Times and The Economist. But Osborne instead started working for William Hague’s leadership campaign, where he demonstrated his remarkable facility as a writer of newspaper articles and speeches.
Osborne went on to work for Hague from 1997-2001: a job where among other qualities, he honed his abilities as an attack dog, seeking to get inside the mind of powerful opponents and precipitate them into error.
In 2001 he became MP for Tatton, but he continued to help successive Conservative leaders to prepare for PMQs, a task at which he was extremely good.
The aim was to destroy Tony Blair, and also, as shadow chancellor from 2005, to destroy Gordon Brown. Success was a long time coming. Osborne learned the trade of politics through many years of Conservative failure.
In his period as Chancellor of the Exchequer, from 2010-16, he was a commanding figure, and managed to restore partial though by no means total equilibrium to the public finances, while presiding over a remarkable increase in employment.
But for him to be, as editor of The Evening Standard rather than the second most powerful man in the government, a political outsider, albeit a well-connected one, is not such an unfamiliar experience as one might think.
Once again, he is trying to destroy a Prime Minister, only this time she happens to be a Conservative. He believes he has the higher interests of the party at heart: that it needs to return to the liberal conservatism promoted by him and his Cameroon friends.
One might say he wants to do for Britain something similar to what Macron is trying to do for France.
But his assault on May is not to everybody’s taste. Dominic Raab, who has just returned to government, has described it as “disloyal, unprofessional and frankly pretty self-indulgent”, while Iain Martin, a columnist for The Times, tweeted: “‘Dead woman walking’ is such a deeply unpleasant phrase from George Osborne. He should apologise to May.”
But what Osborne has said about May is not as unpleasant as what various newspapers have said about Jeremy Corbyn. Brutal rudeness is part of our idea of a free press, and does not necessarily harm those on the receiving end.
So too is the shameless use of newspapers to advance political interests. The bust of Lord Northcliffe in the lofty atrium of Northcliffe House is a reminder of that.
The first test for Osborne is what his readers think of his frequent attacks on May. I would guess that at present, they find these pleasingly incisive: an admirable antidote to blandness.
If Londoners are satisfied, and pick up and read the paper in large numbers (for it is free), then the advertisers on whom The Evening Standard depends for its revenue will be happy too.
But attacking May will not do as a policy forever. Not only will it become fearfully repetitive, but the situation will change. Either she will recover, and will deserve a degree of credit for the resilience and adaptability she has shown, or she will go, and either way, a new editorial line will be required.
And at this point, there might be a problem. For when the identity of a new Conservative leader is the issue of the hour, it may matter that The Evening Standard‘s proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, is on very friendly terms with Boris Johnson, while Osborne would be much more likely to favour someone like Amber Rudd.
Meanwhile another curiosity of Osborne’s position deserves to be noted. While he was in government, the Independent Press Standards Organisation was set up, but his present newspaper does not subscribe to it. So if the Prime Minister ever feels inclined to lodge an official complaint about him, that particular route is not open to her.
It is, however, possible that Osborne’s attacks will produce a reaction in her favour. After all, his own attempts to control the Conservative Party were not universally popular with Conservative MPs.
And a week ago the party did get 42.4 per cent of the vote, its highest share since 1983. In these circumstances, persistent attempts to demolish the Prime Minister, rather than help her to get back on her feet, could come to be seen as distinctly unhelpful.