Trebles all round
George Osborne’s appointment as Evening Standard editor is a textbook illustration of establishment corruption, argues Paul Demarty
Good news, then, for George Osborne - and bad news for London commuters.
The erstwhile chancellor of the exchequer has made the news by going into the business of news gathering himself, balancing the rigours of editorial life with his parliamentary duties to the people of Tatton - a place he could no doubt find on a map in a pinch. There are many other striking features of this appointment, not the least of which is the level of his journalistic experience (a failed tilt at a couple of traineeships and a paltry few freelance paragraphs in the year between university and his entry into the Tory wonkscape).
Anyone would think that there were - how to put this? - extra-professional reasons for this turn of events; and incredibly, the Standard job is only the second lucrative and eyebrow-raising appointment Osborne has garnered so far this year. And, while the editorial craft seems bizarrely outside his comfort zone, the earlier such job is all too close to home.
In January, Gideon (Osborne’s original given name) took up a £160,000-per-quarter role as advisor-cum-brand-ambassador on behalf of BlackRock, the enormous institutional investor (read: pension fund manager). For any former chancellor, a job at such a vast, tentacular financial concern would stink of a conflict of interest; Osborne in particular, however, made several striking innovations to British pension policy that offered his new employers no small cheer on their own account (after the key 2014 budget, Blackrock announced that it was “uniquely positioned because of our multi-asset strategies” to take advantage of changes in rules that would allow pensioners to spend their pots more freely).1
It would be reasonable to ask whether it can really be true that senior government ministers can just stroll blithely into exactly the same parts of the private sector their decisions so recently shaped. Indeed, in theory the answer is no. In practice, as ever, things are endlessly favourable to the capitalist and the bright-eyed public servant with a taste for the high life. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which is supposed to stop abuses of this nature, asserted that “there were no specific policy decisions in [Osborne’s] time in office that would have specifically affected BlackRock”.
This is a rather different assessment than BlackRock’s quoted above (perhaps the latter ought to retain Acoba en masse as advisors?); by such means, amazingly, is George Osborne - this gormless pillock who destroys everything he touches, apart from his own bank balance - on course to make a million pounds in his first year since Theresa May disposed of his disastrous political career (the balance made up by £600,000 worth of Stateside speaking engagements). Nothing, as they say, succeeds like failure.
Gideon’s implausibly rosy fortunes are, however, not merely a picture-postcard of moral corruption in public life, but also a textbook illustration of how it works.
We shall take George’s new jobs in chronological order. What makes a fund like BlackRock hire a person like him? We might start by asking: what is he being paid to do? According to the register of members’ interests, he is an “advisor on the global economy”, working 12 days a quarter. That’s £13,500 a day - nice work if you can get it. We live in a perfectly efficient market economy, of course; so £3 million pro rata is presumably the market rate for the services of so useful an advisor on the global economy as old Gideon O. That is an awful lot of money; but then, BlackRock has an awful lot of money. On further reflection, there are many aspects of the global economy that impinge on BlackRock’s ability to grow that awful lot of money into a still greater sum, so it is astonishing that it had not already splashed out for so profound a prognosticator as our George. Better late than never ...
Of course, the whole thing is manifestly implausible. We are talking about a financial behemoth here, and it is perfectly well abreast of international developments, employing no end of ‘advisors’ - or analysts, as actually useful advisors are known - to exploit global conditions in order to turn one dollar into two. Such people can be had for less than £13,500 a day - so what explains the Osborne premium?
There are two explanations. The first is employed by Owen Jones, savaging the more recent editorial job:
Public office gives you lots of marketable advantages: prominence, connections, knowledge of the inside workings of government. These can then be exploited by major corporations, wealthy individuals and media oligarchs to gain even more power over our corrupted democracy.2
There is little to object to here, of course - such things do command a price. Yet the lattermost is presumably an asset Osborne shares with middle-ranking civil servants and the like - sure, the notorious revolving door admits the likes of them too, but for nothing like the same sums of money. Prominence is a double-edged sword for the likes of Osborne, the flash-git posh boy who combines the cynicism of post-Blair machine politics with the appearance of a vampire, and is routinely pilloried in the pages of the press as a slippery failure. That leaves connections; and it is just possible that Osborne’s are good enough for the price.
There is another, less charitable, hypothesis; namely, that this is not employment, but ‘payment for services rendered’ - Osborne is not being paid for the anticipated benefits of his advice, but the realised benefits of his policies. This is not the explanation favoured by BlackRock’s PRs or Osborne’s self-image, but we must insist it is the explanation favoured by Occam’s razor. Similar suspicions cling to other such creatures - we think of Tony Blair, whose already troubled image has been besmirched further since his exit from the Commons by his prostitution before oligarchs and tyrants, and the similar career of Peter Mandelson. The establishment remembers its friends.
Join the resistance
As for the Standard, it is surely a match made in heaven. Evgeny Lebedev, the eccentric proprietor, has pristine Osbornite bona fides; he led another paper of his, the late and unlamented Independent, to call in 2015 for a tactical vote to ensure the continuation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Standard, for its part, participated enthusiastically in Zac Goldsmith’s disastrous, racist gutter campaign for London mayor, whose form was dictated by the Osborne-Cameron hit-man, Lynton Crosby. Nobody came out of that smelling of roses, but the stink itself binds them together, like the bloody solidarity of the military unit.
There is, of course, another tie that binds Lebedev to Osborne, which is their overt cosmopolitanism. Lebedev is London to his bones - all the more so for being a Russian oligarch. In Osborne, he sees a kindred spirit. The latter, in the spare five minutes he finds, here and there, between the editorial conferences, PMQs and BlackRock consultations, is writing a book, The age of unreason, about the depredations of nationalist populism - an endeavour that, no doubt, will give the latter doctrine a much-needed boost in popularity.
From his new bully pulpit, Osborne may be expected to offer little in the way of day-to-day management (if Lebedev has half an ounce of sense, which is by no means guaranteed); instead, he will bring a political line equally friendly to high finance and the cosmopolitan collective consciousness of the capital - the City and the city. Liberated from the need to satisfy the provincial reactionaries of Tatton (for even he cannot have the chutzpah to seek re-election, surely), he will instead take his place within the ranks of ‘the resistance’, the cabal of persons (Tony Blair, John Major and so on) whose defence of neoliberal globalisation in the hour of its decrepitude is somewhat compromised by their insistence on profiting handsomely from it.
There is a paradox and irony to this outcome, for the growth of rightwing populism is attributable in part to the punitive, alienating character of the neoliberal victory, the hectoring and bureaucratic inflicting of ever greater humiliation on those ‘left behind’, and the discussion of the working class, where the phrase could even be found on elite lips, as purely an insular, resentful rump to whom it was occasionally necessary to throw a few lumps of meat in the form of empty threats against immigrants and ‘scroungers’. That is the legacy of Blair, and of Osborne; and it was the Brexit vote, a hopeless flailing revenge on the part of the same discarded rump, that did for Osborne directly.
Yet this cloud is its own silver lining; for the unravelling of the self-evidently ‘sensible’, ‘rational’ world order that obtained well enough until last year, in spite of everything, gives such people a mission. While he was prime minister, Blair transparently lusted only after power itself; the office of prime minister was its own reward, and no sacrifice was too great to keep it. The same attitude characterised Osborne as chancellor, whose tactical manoeuvres were breathtaking in their empty cynicism. Now the two of them pose as the last redoubt of civilised humanity against the pitchfork-wielding hordes - a pose that depends for its plausibility on the consequences of their former nihilism. What a twisted world we live in, when the architects of disaster must appear by the same token as our saviours from it.
We wish them the success they deserve.
1. Private Eye, January 27.