The appointment of the former Conservative chancellor as the editor of a major British newspaper was big news. And even after George Osborne decided to give up his job as an MP, his new role at the helm of London’s Evening Standard was still controversial. As the latest politician to land a job through the revolving door of British elite employment, there were questions over how he would direct the paper’s political coverage.
With the announcement of the 2017 general election just days after his appointment, this interest only increased. Would Osborne’s debut election campaign – an editorial baptism of fire – show him up as a true blue Tory conformist?
Surprisingly, his paper’s electoral coverage so far has been anything but. The editorial on his first day in charge immediately criticised Theresa May and the Conservative’s approach to Brexit as offering nothing more than a slogan. The whole idea of Brexit, it added, was “an historic mistake”. It did not pay Labour any favours either, saying that the party’s “desperately weak” leadership was doing nothing for democracy. It was a debut which made it difficult to argue that Osborne was exhibiting any pro-party bias.
And this punchy start was not an exception. A glance across Osborne’s subsequent pages as Standard editor show that his paper has no problem taking issue with significant Conservative election moves. One leading comment piece heavily criticised the prime ministers’s intentions to impose a migration cap.
Labelling it simply a “bad policy”, the Standard urged May to abandon her position due to its economic and ideological lack of sense. Which sections of the migrant workforce, the paper wondered, would be forced to leave to hit the supposed immigration targets? How could we call ourselves a “global Britain’” if EU students are turned away? Far from conforming, Osborne was blatantly ruffling Tory feathers.
Those feathers were ruffled further with the paper’s recent response to May’s reversal of the proposed “dementia tax” outlined in her party’s manifesto. Deriding a “weekend of wobbles”, the U-turn was proclaimed “neither strong nor stable” in the headline, alongside accusations that the party was having to already flounder and rewrite its manifesto, with several MPs shown up as struggling under press questioning. It is hard to counter such editorial content with ideas of a complicit party stooge being in charge.
Historically however, the Evening Standard is a Conservative-leaning paper, including right up to the last general election. It is not surprising then, that amid this sometimes fiery critique of the Tories, Labour is also given a rough ride. While praising their manifesto’s honesty regarding tax increases, it dismisses them as potential evidence of Britain being “an enemy of aspiration and opportunity” and that they would, if implemented, ultimately leave millions of people poorer.
Even less complimentary is the paper’s take on the overall Labour manifesto, which it negatively labels “socialist” and “likely to produce a rise in poverty, inequality and insecurity”. It also almost sadistically welcomes the likelihood of Labour’s defeat, saying that a loss for hard-left politics at the polls will bring on a welcome move to the centre by Labour, akin to the rise of Emmanuel Macron in France.
The end result of this glance across Osborne’s early days at the helm is that, in the eyes of those on both the left and right, he is doing something wrong. Some see his attacks against May and the Conservatives not as editorial duty, but a chance at personal revenge against a prime minister who both ousted him from the cabinet, and has promised a positive approach to the Brexit he was so against.
Others, typically more to the left of the political spectrum, cannot see past Osborne’s political past and the potential of collusion between him and his former party. For all his stances against May, he is still seen by some as a party loyalist, and the paper’s critiques of Labour so far – and the likelihood this traditional Tory paper will side with the government come polling day – will not change their minds.
So far then, Osborne as editor has struck a middle ground between being a party conformist and a vocal press critic. His approach has been reviled by people on both sides. He is critical of both leading parties, and is yet accused of bias by one side towards the other.
He is annoying, questioning and provoking everyone.
In short, he is behaving like something many people thought he couldn’t properly be, something I myself doubted he could be. He is behaving, despite a lack of experience, like a decent journalist.