In defence of George Osborne

25 Mar 2017

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George Osborne has never been the nation's sweetheart. For many, he is the ruthless budget-cutter of the Cameron years, a man entirely without empathy who delighted in harping on about his beloved ‘long-term economic plan’.

 

For liberal Conservatives such as myself, however, he is a bearer of hope.

 

The news that Osborne is to become Editor of the London Evening Standard inspired shock in both Westminster and beyond, but I find myself comparatively cheerful. The compassionate Conservative agenda came under threat the moment David Cameron resigned in July last year. By taking up the editor’s chair, Osborne now has a platform big enough and influential enough to lead the fight against an obviously imperfect government confused over Brexit and increasingly in thrall to its right-wing.

 

“This is multi-tasking taken to an unbelievable degree”. That was how Jeremy Corbyn described the announcement, and he is far from the first to question the former chancellor’s grasp of time. How can a person commit themselves to their constituents and edit a major London newspaper? Such questions are reasonable, and, the equally controversial one-day-a-week job at Blackrock aside, it is easy to be sceptical about Osborne’s ability to do both.

 

It is worth remembering, however, that, as I’m sure many do remember with little fondness, he was in fact Chancellor of the Exchequer not so long ago. Nadhim Zahawi, a fellow Tory MP, once described Cameron and Osborne as “co-CEOs”. Indeed, the influence the latter held over Tory ranks before his sacking only confirmed in the minds of many that he and the then prime minister were, in essence, perfect equals. Scepticism about his abilities as the holder of the nation’s purse strings, Osborne’s heavy involvement in policy and internal politics would have left him with very little time to relax with his N.W.A albums.

 

The truth is that every cabinet or shadow cabinet minister, minor or prominent, has two jobs. A balance must be struck between their constituency work and other commitments, all in the hope that the electorate will vote in approval come the next general election. Whilst editing a newspaper will certainly be a new experience for Osborne, an ex-chancellor as heavily involved as he should not find it impossible to manage both the Standard newsroom and the Commons.

 

Another of the many fears expressed about the appointment is that, under George Osborne’s editorship, the Evening Standard will develop into great defender of the government, a poor result for both democracy and journalism. Osborne has insisted in numerous interviews since his dismissal that he voted for Theresa May in the short-lived Conservative leadership election of last year. In a contest involving Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Stephen Crabb and Andrea Leadsom, all of whom were either marred by controversy or without widespread parliamentary support, it is not surprising that Osborne supported May. And whilst I’m sure both sides will be keen to deny this, the relationship between the two is not exactly harmonious.

 

May is thought to have sacked Osborne, in a less than amicable fashion, within minutes of entering Downing Street. Since assuming the party leadership, the Prime Minister has talked often of so-called “liberal elites”, a label under which Osborne is sure to fall, who sneer at the fears and desires of ordinary people, summarising her vision for her premiership with the particularly airy mantra “a country that works for everyone” - as though her predecessors never fought for such a thing.

 

Osborne has in turn issued lightly veiled criticisms of her submarine tactics during the EU referendum, telling Andrew Marr in December last year that he was not the one who tried to “sit it out”, and in February stabbed at her Brexit strategy by serenely assessing in the House of Commons that her plans did not “make the economy a priority”. Commentators have little to work with when trying to judge extent of the bad feeling between the two, but I think it highly unlikely that Osborne will use the scope available to him as an editor to heal the rift between himself and the woman responsible for his removal from high office. Put simply, he has very little reason to be kind.

 

At last year’s Conservative Party conference, before backing down amid an outcry that could so easily have been predicted, Amber Rudd announced her intention to force firms to reveal the number of foreign workers they employ. Theresa May, while setting out her approach to Brexit earlier in the year, warned EU leaders that she would rather walk away from the negotiating table than agree to a “bad” deal. At a recent meeting of the Brexit select committee, David Davis admitted the government had done no assessment of the economic impact of such a situation.

 

There is quite obviously a great deal a moderate newspaper like the Evening Standard can criticise. Our government is not a strong one, nor is our party leadership. Liberal Conservative MPs willing to speak up seem to be few in number these days, and disgruntled party members such as myself can only vent our frustrations to each other and on social media.

 

Whatever your opinion of the austerity measures he enacted, one cannot deny that George Osborne is a Tory of the modern kind.

 

Like David Cameron, he has consistently voted for and spoken in favour of LGBT+ rights, most notably in the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013, and denounced the “mean and divisive” rhetoric spouted by the likes of Nigel Farage, and, sadly, repeated by various Conservative colleagues.

 

I do not take issue with my pro-Brexit peers for their stance on the European Union, but I do find myself increasingly frustrated by the attitudes of some. Any mild concern or slight criticism regarding Brexit seems to be met with cries of insubordination. Moderate Remainers on government benches are guilty only of the occasional objection, not unlike the level of dissension present in their Eurosceptic colleagues ever since the original referendum of 1975.

 

Opposition in British politics is almost non-existent. Labour occupy themselves with petty internal warfare and increasingly shambolic leadership, the SNP obsess over a possible second independence referendum, and there are too few Liberal Democrats and UKIP MPs in the Commons to make a real difference to debate. If a challenge to the government is going to come from anywhere, it is likely to be best delivered by the liberal ranks of the Conservative Party.

 

In an article in The Times last week, commentator and former MP Matthew Parris spoke of a building sense of unease about the direction of our party. He sees the Tories as being “paralysed in the headlights of a dangerous surge of reckless populism”, not at all aided by Mrs May’s insistence on shutting down questions about her competence on Brexit as ignorance to the democratic will of the people. Parris shares my thinking entirely. We ride high in the polls, and I’m confident we’ll win big come 2020, but we cannot afford to be complacent.

 

It may come as something of a shock to some, but editors have opinions. I think it rather ideal that George Osborne shares the tolerant, liberal outlook shared by many of those still loyal to Cameron’s compassionate model of conservatism.

 

If we are to be shouted down as sneering elitists by the leadership and dominant right-wing of the parliamentary party, we ought to find an alternative platform. The government is a deeply flawed one, and will no doubt create further problems for itself amid the turbulence of the negotiations ahead of us. Never has moderate, coherent opposition been needed so desperately. I think editor George Osborne can offer us that.

 

 


 

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