Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Beware the pen of an Osborne scorned

  • Osborne’s editorship at the Evening Standard is likely to prove a persistent headache to the PM and her ministers throughout the Brexit negotiations. (Photo: Conservatives/Flickr)

Suddenly the Channel seems a lot wider than the 30 miles (50km) between Dover and Calais.

UK prime minister Theresa May’s attempt to wrap herself in the Union Jack by accusing EU officials and the “continental media” of interfering in the Brexit election campaign on Wednesday (3 May), was straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.

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The fallout from the "Dinnergate" leaks - which May’s officials blame on Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr - have prompted a fresh round of Brexit posturing by the prime minister, and criticism from her domestic opponents.

Picking a fight with Europe (particularly Brussels) seldom fails to give a British government a short-term boost in opinion polls, not that May – with her 20 percent lead over Labour – needs one.

It also makes a headline-writer’s job much easier.

One newspaperman who enjoyed "Dinnergate" more than most was George Osborne, the former UK chancellor of the exchequer, spending his first week editing the London Evening Standard, one of the UK’s biggest titles.

Having watched his political prospects disappear last summer after Theresa May used one of her first acts as prime minister to fire him, Osborne will leave parliament at the June 8 election.

"Brussels twists knife on Brexit", proclaimed Osborne’s first edition, seen by London’s early commuters on Tuesday (2 May), although a later version toned this down to "UK hits back at Brussels leaks".

An unlikely editor

There were, however, no changes to Osborne’s first editorial, which describes Brexit as "a historic mistake", before adding that "the country should prepare for more tough days ahead as reality bites".

Theresa May’s election campaign "amounts to no more than a slogan", it concluded.

Osborne makes an unlikely editor, although a little-known fact is that he started his working life as a freelancer with the right-wing Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s before joining the Conservative party rat-race.

After becoming an MP in 2001, his career path was then bound to that of friend and fellow party official turned politician, David Cameron.

At 45, Osborne is still young enough to have a second political career and, ever the strategist, is unlikely to have completely given up on one day taking May’s job.

For the moment, editing the Standard guarantees him a public profile, and advising investment firm BlackRock for £650,000 a year (€800,000) gives him a more than healthy income.

If day one is anything to go by, May should fear the pen of a former chancellor scorned, particularly its remarks about "how unrealistic were the claims made about the strength of Britain's hand". This kind of talk is tantamount to treason in the current political climate.

The Standard has consistently supported Conservative candidates and governments over the past decade, but Osborne’s editorship is likely to prove a persistent headache to the PM and her ministers throughout the Brexit negotiations.

The City of London’s financial services sector will be among the first to lose if a new trading arrangement between the UK and EU cannot be brokered by 2019.

Part of the election’s value to May is the strength over her party, particularly its Remain-supporting MPs, that a larger majority would bring. The prime minister would have been delighted when Osborne chose life outside parliament.

Hole in the head

Tuesday’s headlines will have changed that. The prospect of reading daily critiques of her negotiating strategy, penned by a man she sacked less than a year ago, will be about as welcome as a hole in the head.

Politicians usually overestimate the importance of news media in shaping public opinion. On UK-EU relations, however, the evidence is compelling.

Thirty years of stories about bent bananas, standard EU-sized condoms, and banning prawn cocktail crisps – the latter fib being the creation of now foreign secretary Boris Johnson when he was a Telegraph correspondent – has conditioned the British public into accepting that "barmy Brussels bureaucrats" are capable of any evil.

A news daily with a large readership that is prepared to challenge this narrative is long overdue. With a circulation of 850,000 in a wealthy and multi-cultural city, the Standard is better placed than most.

Osborne’s Standard has promised to "argue for a Britain that doesn't retreat within itself but remains engaged in Europe and the world".

That outlook seems a world away right now. If George Osborne wants to be remembered for more than being David Cameron’s chief lieutenant, restoring Britain’s liberal internationalism from a flicker to a flame would be a legacy worth having.

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