The Vanity Press Remains

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When, in 2009, a shady Russian oligarch and his foppish son took over London’s Evening Standard, the great British journalist Perry Worsthorne remarked, “I think it’s one more example that we are no more a serious nation.”  Well, Perry, you were right, but I suspect even you didn’t see how silly British high society could become, and how quickly.  On March 17, Evgeny Lebedev, the oligarch fils, announced that he had hired George Osborne, the former chancellor, to be his editor at the Evening Standard.  Nobody believed the news at first, but soon it was confirmed.  Osborne, who is still Member of Parliament for Tatton, in Cheshire, promptly materialized in the Standard’s offices.  He told the staff that he had a run a country before, but not a newspaper.  Ho ho.

It’s not unprecedented for ambitious British men to mix careers in politics and journalism.  Iain Macleod went from being editor of the Spectator to chancellor of the exchequer; Boris Johnson, the current foreign secretary, also edited the Speccie; and, as Osborne pointed out in a letter to his northern constituents, the legendary editor C.P. Scott ran the Manchester Guardian while serving as an MP.

There remains something deeply odd about Osborne’s latest job, however.  For starters, the Evening Standard, which used to be a great paper, has under the stewardship of the younger Lebedev become a celebrity-obsessed freesheet—a reflection of everything that is wrong with London life.  Evgeny likes his pages to be filled with pictures of himself standing next to famous people and politicians at horrible-looking parties.  He also insists on running columns, though written by someone else, under his byline, lecturing Londoners about the homeless and the need to save elephants in Africa.

Subeditors have been fired, the newsroom streamlined, but Lebedev invests a lot of energy and money into organizing the Evening Standard’s Theatre Awards ceremony.  He has, in short, turned the paper into a bit of a farce—though, because he pays a lot of journalists’ salaries, he tends to be applauded warmly in the press for having shown such smart positional sense in the complicated media market.

It was thought that Lebedev had wooed Osborne to give his paper some much-needed gravitas.  But it turns out Osborne put himself forward to Lebedev, and Lebedev—who is as impressed by chancellors as he is by famous actors—snapped up the offer.

Why on earth would Osborne want the job?  Conspiracy theories are sprouting.  The new Standard editor is said to be part of a Remain plot.  London, the capital, voted strongly against leaving the European Union in June last year.  The rest of the country felt differently, and a majority voted to leave.  Londoners—at least the socially mobile middle class, the sort of people who read the Standard coming back from work—are still angry at having lost the referendum to nasty right-wingers and the illiberal, unwashed majority.  Perhaps Osborne, an upper-middle-class Londoner by birth, intends to be their voice.  He, too, has suffered because of Brexit.  Before the referendum, he was not only chancellor but chief puller-of-strings across David Cameron’s administration.  After his side lost the referendum, however, his power vanished.  Cameron resigned, and, when Theresa May’s government came in, Osborne was rudely pushed out to the backbenches.  Cameron slunk off to lead the life of a grandee in retirement—shooting and drinking in the countryside on the weekends, writing his memoir.  But the boy George is more restless.  He already earns the better part of a million pounds per year working one day a week for the investment-management company BlackRock.  His family will not go hungry, it’s safe to say.  Influence is what he craves—plus another £200,000 at least for editing the Standard.  Most of all, he hates the thought of having lost, and it would not be all surprising if he were determined to undermine May’s government.  He has decided he needs a prominent media platform, which is why he approached Lebedev about the job.  In his letter to his constituents, Osborne gave his reasons and assured them that he still had their best interests at heart: “I want to continue to take part in the debate about the future direction of our country,” he said.

Westminster hacks translated that statement: “I want to become the voice of Remain in the capital, so that when Brexit proves to be a disaster, everybody will listen to me again.”

Osborne’s Evening Standard, it is thought, will play the part the New York Times is trying to perform in America under Trump: the voice of liberal reason against the irrational forces of populism.  The trouble is, plenty of other, higher-brow publications are doing that already: the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, and Lebedev’s other outlet, the now online-only Independent.  We also have, at the trashier end of the media spectrum, the Mail on Sunday and a newfangled weekly, The New European, which is dedicated to abhorring Brexit.  Its editor-at-large is the new Labour man Alastair Campbell, who was arguably as important to Tony Blair’s administration as Osborne was to Cameron’s.  Perhaps Osborne believes his contacts and insider knowledge of the way Westminster works will give his paper an edge.  Certainly, lots of well-connected hacks at other organs are concerned; many of their best scoops used to come from Osborne himself.  It seems unlikely he will give away so much useful information now.

But journalists have long tended to overrate Osborne.  As shadow chancellor, he was always applauded for pulling rabbits out of hats.  For instance, he is thought to have spooked Labour’s Gordon Brown out of calling a general election he would have won by making a surprising promise to cut inheritance tax.  This was widely regarded a political masterstroke.  When he was chancellor, pundits would marvel at the political traps he set, which his opponents always fell into.

Yet for all his skill in courting the press, and making politicos marvel at him, Osborne proved to be rather too clever for his own good.  It was he who directed the government’s efforts to persuade voters to stay in the European Union.  He got the tactics wildly wrong.  You could argue that Osborne, and his so-called Project Fear, did more than anyone or anything else to ensure the British voted to leave.

At first, Osborne went about telling the media that he was not going to rely on economic arguments to persuade the British to Remain; he would advance the security benefits of the E.U. instead.  That was always a flawed plan: Brits have never thanked the E.U. for the fact they live in relative peace.  It failed to gain what wonks call traction.  So Osborne resorted to frightening voters with economics.  This involved repeatedly telling the British public, and urging bankers and companies to repeat the line, that our desertion of the European Union would result in our ruin.  Many would still argue that Osborne was right, despite the British economy having performed quite well since the referendum.  We’ve yet to leave the E.U.  We’ve only just triggered Article 50, and all the government’s predictions of economic doom outside the E.U. could be vindicated.  But in the run-up to the referendum, many taxpayers took strong exception to being talked to as if they were slaves to the financial system that they had only recently had to bail out, and they revolted against Osborne’s strategy.

Osborne wanted to be prime minister, but his problem was that, even though he is quite likeable, people outside of politics don’t seem to like him.  He gives off an air of superiority even if he doesn’t mean to.  As one journalist memorably put it, “he always looks like an aristocrat in a powdered wig, peering nervously through his carriage window at the Parisian mob on the eve of the French Revolution.”  Brexit proved to be a very English revolution, no blood was shed, and Osborne was ostracized.

Osborne might quite like the idea that, through the Evening Standard, he can now lead the elite fightback against Brexit.  Theresa May’s advisors, still spooked by the myth of Osborne the mastermind, are said to be petrified about what he might do at the helm of the Standard.

But then politicians, like journalists, tend to exaggerate the importance of the press and the extent to which sharp operators can manipulate public opinion.  The real reason Osborne applied for the Standard job may have less to do with politics and more to do with vanity.  Osborne, like his new boss, worships A-list stars and celebrity.  He seems pathologically incapable of resisting the allure of the superrich lifestyle.  One of his lowest moments as a politician came when it was revealed that he took an ill-judged holiday with Nat Rothschild and Labour Party guru Peter Mandelson aboard the Russian aluminium billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s yacht.  He enjoys rubbing shoulders with George and Amal Clooney at the World Economic Forum, and he also once played “pass the ice cube”—a kissing game, in case you didn’t know—with one of the Spice Girls at a wedding.  Nobody should begrudge him these little titillations.  It’s better that he spends his time cozying up to the rich and the beautiful than trying, as he did so hard while chancellor, to drag Britain into Middle Eastern conflicts, and his fame-adoring instincts might make him a commercially successful editor.  But perhaps we can stop taking him so seriously.       

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