Expressions of outrage and disgust, some of them genuine, greeted the recent announcement that the Tory former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is to take over as the editor of The London Evening Standard, the capital’s top paper. Mr. Osborne had lost his old government job, one of the four “Great Offices of State,” when the Brexit referendum outcome swept the old Cameron cast off the U.K.’s political stage. Pulled from the spotlight, he returned to backbench obscurity, a mere member of Parliament.
We should have seen it coming; he was restless there among the chorus and the bit actors. Mr. Osborne was blindsided by the improbability that he would ever return to frontline politics; his ambition for the top job of prime minister appeared a vanished dream. Some may have thought he would have settled into a nice niche role, satisfied with the odd political cameo. Instead, Mr. Osborne has joined a different troupe altogether. Its impresario is the Moscow-born oligarch Evgeny Lebedev, who moved to London at age 8 when his father, a K.G.B. agent (or “economic attaché”), was assigned here.
Some may have thought he would have settled into a nice role. Instead, Mr. Osborne has joined a different troupe altogether.
Disapproval of this appointment did not take long to surface, especially after the public learned that Mr. Osborne intended to continue as a member of Parliament. Mr. Osborne’s constituents, who reside 200 miles north of London, wonder how he intends to represent them as well as run a big newspaper. They note that the concerns of Londoners are quite different from those of people in “the Provinces,” as we still occasionally say in town. It did not help that Mr. Lebedev described his new editor as “London through and through.”
Increasingly, people in England, if not across the whole of the United Kingdom, have come to feel themselves members of two nations—reflecting not so much a divide between rich and poor—or working people and masters—that so troubled Disraeli and Carlyle, but a different manifestation. There’s London and there’s everywhere else.
Enormous infrastructure investment has gone into the capital; the Crossrail west-east light rail project, 73 miles long and passing under central London in new tunnels and through Heathrow, will open in 2019 at a total cost of almost 15 billion pounds. It is by far the biggest and most ambitious civil engineering project in Europe today. A recent previous contender for that title was the London 2012 Olympic Games construction project. Disgruntled non-Londoners point to such vast investments as proof of the great divide.
Mr. Osborne appears to have placed himself in a conflict of interests, and perhaps not the only one. Critics note his other extracurricular activities, such as the four days per month he has contracted to work for a Wall Street investment firm—amply compensated with a reported £650,000 per annum. He enjoys an even more lucrative sideline in speech-making; that has raked in a reported half-million quid since he was sacked as chancellor in mid-2016. His official salary as an member of Parliament, £74,000, looks by comparison like the loose change he would use to tip waiters and London cabbies.
The multiple salary stream is not unusual among elected politicians in the United Kingdom, although following public concern several years ago about the ethics of such practices, the rules governing disclosure are much tighter. Other notable examples of the problem include Boris Johnson, still holding one of those Great Offices as U.K. secretary of state. As mayor of London he penned a newspaper column for a cool £250,000 a year, a gig he had to relinquish upon his cabinet appointment.
Some worry that this new job offers Mr. Osborne an opportunity to avenge his post-Brexit sacking. One serving member of Parliament snorted that “there is one purpose and one purpose only” to Mr. Osborne accepting the new job at the Evening Standard—“to get back at Theresa May.”
Others speculate that he might be casting his glance further ahead, emulating Mr. Johnson by running for London mayor next time round.
Despite the queries and criticism, Mr. Osborne remains defiant, saying the editor’s work is mainly in the morning while Parliament’s work is mostly in the afternoon. In a self-effacing quip sure to have raised his former boss David Cameron’s eyebrow, he told the title’s staff that “I may have run the country, but I haven’t run a newspaper.”
Cynics might add that he also ran a losing referendum, and got sacked for it too.