Osborne must decide how to serve his country
Journalism does not mix with jobs in politics and the City of London
The UK is renowned for its flexible labour market. No one has taken greater advantage of it than George Osborne. Alongside his jobs as the Conservative MP for Tatton in Cheshire, the former chancellor is a highly paid adviser to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. And now he has been appointed editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper (he fills his idle hours writing a book, chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think-tank, and appearing on the corporate speaking circuit ).
There is nothing wrong with Mr Osborne, one of his generation’s most ambitious and successful politicians, seeking new horizons. He reached high office at a young age — he was 38 when he arrived at the Treasury — before finding himself out of sorts with his party’s leadership six years later. Editing might, in fact, be a good way to proceed. He could make the Standard a formidable opposition force to Theresa May’s government. His socially liberal and economically conservative outlook is sadly missing from British politics at present.
Politics and journalism have been mixed before. Richard Crossman, for example, edited the New Statesman while serving as a Labour MP in the 1970s. Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, was editor of The Spectator while a Conservative MP. But both are weekly journals of opinion with explicit political affiliations. The Standard is a general interest news organisation that prints almost a million copies every day.
Mr Osborne has been criticised for belittling the jobs of being an MP and an editor. But whether his multitasking is ill-advised — or merely makes the rest of us look unproductive — is not the point. The issue is conflicts of interest, and here both his role in parliamentand his work in the City raise serious questions. The Standard reports on finance and UK politics every day, and every day there would be multiple stories from which Mr Osborne would have to recuse himself as conflicted — whether they be about financial regulation or a scandal in parliament. Mr Osborne cannot serve as an effective and ethical editor while doing either one of his other jobs, let alone both.
It may once have been acceptable to combine a career in politics and the news media. Brendan Bracken was chairman of this newspaper’s predecessor, the Financial News, while he served in parliament and as one of Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime ministers. But expectations have changed. The public expects both MPs and editors to be more professional and transparentthan ever. This is as it should be.
Mr Osborne’s restless ambition will raise the question of whether MPs should be allowed to have second jobs at all. It would be a shame if the answer came back in the negative simply because Mr Osborne’s particular choice of a job in media is so awkward. This would result in a House of Commons that lacked its current breadth of knowledge and experience.
Continuing to serve in parliament while also advising BlackRock does not present similar problems. So long as the nature of his City role is fully disclosed, Mr Osborne’s constituents can decide whether he can balance their interests and BlackRock’s, given that the latter makes a much larger contribution to Mr Osborne’s personal exchequer.
A portfolio career is no bad thing. Neither are politicians with connections to business. But a leadership role at one of the country’s largest news organisations is a step too far. Mr Osborne wants to stay in public life. He has to pick the platform. He cannot have it all.