Apart from a brief stint on the Daily Telegraph‘s Peterborough column, George Osborne has almost no journalistic experience whatsoever. Until yesterday, he had never selected a splash. He has never managed a newsdesk. He has no formal training. He has never doorstepped an interviewee. I would be very surprised if he has shorthand. None the less, there is no reason whatsoever why his editorship of the Evening Standard should not be a stonking success – and every reason why it should be, as this site said when his appointment was announced. As ConservativeHome put it: “the mere fact of his appointment triumphantly demonstrates that he possesses an essential journalistic qualification in spades: a sense of mischief”.
Journalism is a trade, not a profession. One doesn’t need qualifications, though they are certainly desirable. The essentials are a nose for a story, energy, rat-like cunning, impatience with flam, understanding your readers and being able to write – though the last is not absolutely essential, at least if you work for a publication that employs sub-editors, the unsung heroes of journalism, who can knock your copy into shape. Osborne has all these qualifications in spades. He is also very smart and can lead a team. I worked for four people as a Shadow Minister: Caroline Spelman, Eric Pickles, David Willetts – and Osborne. They might almost have been selected to demonstrate the variety that the Conservative Parliamentary Party can offer.
Osborne was the most effective at making the weather. That knack will serve him well as an editor. Furthermore, he is sitting on a goldmine of information gleaned from his years as Chancellor, and has a sizeable contacts book at his disposal. In addition, he will not only be reporting news, but is news. The Standard’s assault on Theresa May’s EU policy yesterday would have caused no stir were Osborne not the paper’s editor. He may not have written it, but his hands were all over it: “there’s nothing wrong with repeating election campaign slogans,” the editoral said. Only a former politician would fully grasp how important repetition is during a contest. We can look forward to a lot more of where that editorial came from.
It is doubtless bad manners to ask, on day two of Osborne’s new job, what he will do next. But he has that quality of making one ask what his plans are – what he is up to, what he will do next – that makes asking the question irresistible. Some wonder whether he may want to stand in 2020 as Mayor of London. I think this is unlikely, for two main reasons. First, because London leans Labour, and if Sadiq Khan stands again in 2020 he will probably win. Second, because serving in any other political post, having been Chancellor, would be settling for second-best – save one. Readers do not need me to spell out which it is. Furthermore, engaging with voters directly never topped Osborne’s list of priorities as a working politician.
For what it’s worth, I’m less enthusiastic about Osborne the Minister than about Osborne the journalist. This site took a very hard line on him during the EU referendum campaign – arguing that it was irresponsible for a Chancellor deliberately to risk a market crisis – and campaigned for Theresa May not to keep him on in Cabinet. A fair assessment of his record as a whole would be less exacting. Nigel Farage is sometimes described as a marmite politician but Osborne, so unlike him in most other respects, is a lot like him in that one: he has fervent admirers and critics alike. ConservativeHome took a middle way, believing that though he messed up on particular occasions (the “Omnishambles Budget”), his general record of helping to deliver economic recovery was sound.
The key to Osborne is a liberal worldview (the Standard declared itself yesterday in favour of freedom, not a word that most politicians now tend to deploy) and his political upbringing. Unlike David Cameron, who served as a SpAd during the early years of the Major Government, Osborne started just a bit later, and his first experiences in politics came at roughly the same time as the Blair ascendancy. His fondness for New Labour-style political dividing lines – the benefits cap, the debt trap, and so on – reflected a mind shaped during that era. That approach is now out of fashion. And although Osborne sometimes refers to having made mistakes, there is no reason to think that his view of what makes a winning political formula has changed: social liberalism, relatively high immigration, free markets.
When news of his appointment to the Standard was announced, this site’s snap judgement was that “this move looks like a step nearer Westminster’s exit door”. This turned out to be right, and for all Osborne’s defiant noises about leaving the Commons “for the moment”, it is hard to see why he would seek to return while May is in place (and just as hard to see why she should seek to help him do so). But editing the Standard will not be the limit of his ambitions. His style of conservatism, and in particularly his attempts to squeeze the growth in welfare, rubs along nicely with Rupert Murdoch’s. If I know anything at all about Osborne, he will already be mulling his chances of eventually editing The Times.