The appointment of former chancellor George Osborne as Evening Standard editor is, of course, less than ideal. Bizarrely, though, some good may come of it. Let’s plough through the list of objections first.
Top of it comes his arrogance in intending to be actively in charge of the only newspaper serving the capital as a whole – well, loosely speaking – for an average of just four early mornings a week, leaving plenty of time for trivial stuff like attending to his duties in the House of Commons, looking after the concerns of his 65,000 constituents in Cheshire and stroking the fat wads he gets from sundry other sources for doing next to nothing.
Some say his getting the job is basically a PR stunt and that others will do most of the work, so we shouldn’t worry about Osborne fouling up. This doesn’t really help. You get a gig like that, you put the shifts in. The suspicion that his installation is a celebrity suck-up by the paper’s playboy proprietor Evgeny Lebedev makes it no easier to like.
Other complaints, though, are less compelling. Scandalised journalists should take a look at themselves before parading their outrage too grandly. The notion that Osborne is unqualified for his new role avoids the fact that politicians have become journalists, including editors, before. It also ignores the reality that droves of people in the news business are less interested in conveying truth, be it complex or plain, than in telling “the story” about the world that their bosses, their advertisers and the prejudices of their readers crave. That, by the way, goes for Left and Right, though what does it say about the values of my trade that it named the Daily Mail Newspaper of the Year?
Seen in that context, having a cocky Conservative at the Standard’s helm is no big deal. As a “political chancellor” Osborne often showed that he is adept as any sly hack at tailoring messages to divide and inflame, leaving out the parts of the picture he finds inconvenient. In that sense, he’ll fit right in. Every Standard editor there’s been since I’ve been in this game – 36 years – has danced to the Tory tune, including when I wrote stuff for it, long before Lebedev took ownership. And Osborne will have to go some to plumb the depths reached by Veronica Wadley, who made the paper so ludicrously partisan that the first thing her successor Geordie Greig did was launch an ad campaign to say sorry.
But this telling of the Standard’s history is itself a partial misrepresentation. The paper has some fine reporters and polished columnists. These strengths often shine through, despite the paper’s enduring shortcomings. Its London tends to be confined to the City, the West End, Kensington and Chelsea and helping suburban commuters pass the time on the way home. A graver failing has been the disgraceful conduct of its boss class during mayoral elections. A paper that truly cared about London would have hammered Zac Goldsmith’s notorious 2016 campaign. Instead, the Standard joined in with it. Osborne’s past attempts to dismiss the dirty tactics of his party’s candidate last year as just a bit of rough and tumble do not bode well.
Where, then, are those grounds for hope? Well, Osborne won’t have any problem with London’s social liberalism and, significantly, he is interested in big city economies (he intends keeping up his interest in the Northern Powerhouse). Theories that he’ll use the Standard as a platform for getting at Theresa May, who kicked his urban Remainer backside out of the cabinet when she became PM, hardly lessen the fear that he’ll use the paper as a vanity plaything. However, given the anti-London undertone of May’s administration, so eager to appease the Ukip mindset and the Tory shire right, this might not be bad for the capital.
It’s worth keeping in mind the valuable consensus among London politicians and major interest groups that the city thrives on its openness and diversity, that the country benefits as a result, and that these assets would be still greater if more powers were devolved from central to London government. When our Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted his congratulations to Osborne, it might have been pragmatic, it might have been tongue in cheek. It might also have made sound political sense.
It is hard to think of Osborne, architect of a failed and clinically divisive austerity strategy that has hit many Londoners hard, becoming part of a broad, redefined political centre ground from which the dangers of a hard Brexit and all that flows from it can be resisted. It may be difficult to see the Evening Standard under his stewardship in the vanguard of some soft Brexit metropolitan popular front. But it would make a lot of sense.
In these uneasy times, it is vital that the centre holds. Soon we will find out if George Osborne knows where the centre of London is. And I don’t mean Charing Cross.