OUT OF THE BLUE

No one saw it com­ing: in March, to the shock of his friends, the hor­ror of his en­e­mies and the dis­may of many ob­servers, es­pe­cially in the press, Ge­orge Os­borne — abruptly sacked as chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer by the new Prime Min­is­ter, Theresa May, in th

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - ED BY CAE­SAR IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GER­ALD SCARFE

Ed Cae­sar on Ge­orge Os­borne’s un­likely rein­ven­tion as the ed­i­tor of the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard, and thorn in the Tories’ side

OS­BORNE IS HAV­ING THE TIME OF

HIS LIFE, HARANGUING HIS FOR­MER COL­LEAGUES

At a lit­tle af­ter 6.30, nearly ev­ery week­day morn­ing, Ge­orge Os­borne — 46 years old, tall, rich, boy­ish, tie­less — takes the bus from Not­ting Hill in west Lon­don, where he lives, to Kens­ing­ton High Street, where he works, or­ders his break­fast to take away from Leon, ar­rives at the mar­bled and airy head­quar­ters of the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard, takes the lift to the sec­ond floor, en­ters his cor­ner of­fice, and sets about de­stroy­ing his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies.

Os­borne as­sumed the ed­i­tor­ship of the Stan­dard in May of this year. The news­pa­per is one of Bri­tain’s old­est sur­viv­ing ti­tles. It was first pub­lished in 1827, and since 2009, when it be­came free, it has been handed to nearly one mil­lion com­muters in Lon­don ev­ery week­day. Edit­ing the Stan­dard is a se­ri­ous job for a se­ri­ous jour­nal­ist. Os­borne’s for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the po­si­tion are slight. Be­fore he took the Stan­dard job, he had al­most no ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in jour­nal­ism, apart from edit­ing two is­sues of the Univer­sity of Ox­ford’s stu­dent mag­a­zine, the un­for­tu­nately named Isis, while he was an un­der­grad­u­ate and briefly free­lanc­ing for news­pa­pers in his twen­ties. When his ap­point­ment was an­nounced in March, the reaction from other parts of the me­dia ranged be­tween baf­fle­ment and out­rage. “My thresh­old for be­ing shocked just rose a lit­tle more,” tweeted An­drew Neil, the BBC po­lit­i­cal an­chor and for­mer ed­i­tor of The Sun­day Times. Other com­men­ta­tors were less po­lite.

Un­til re­cently, Os­borne prided him­self on his ca­reer-long ded­i­ca­tion to politics: first as a re­searcher in the Con­ser­va­tive Party, and then as a spe­cial ad­vi­sor, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, and, at 33, the shadow chan­cel­lor. In 2010, at 38, he be­came chan­cel­lor, a po­si­tion that put him in con­trol of the govern­ment’s spend­ing and made him the sec­ond-most pow­er­ful per­son in David Cameron’s govern­ment. His po­lit­i­cal as­cent came to a hard stop only af­ter Bri­tain voted to leave the Euro­pean Union in June of last year, and Os­borne, who had cam­paigned for Bri­tain to re­main in the union, was cast aside by the new prime min­is­ter, Theresa May.

To add to the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing his ap­point­ment at the Stan­dard, Os­borne was still a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment when his ed­i­tor­ship was an­nounced, as well as an ad­vi­sor to Black-Rock, the in­vest­ment gi­ant. Af­ter a con­sid­er­able out­cry, Os­borne re­signed his par­lia­men­tary seat in April, but he has so far seemed un­will­ing to give up his post at Black-Rock, where he is paid £650,000 a year for around 50 days’ work.

Os­borne couldn’t care less about the brouhaha, be­cause he is hav­ing the time of his life. You’ve never seen some­one have so much fun. In the ed­i­tor’s chair, he’s been like a nine-year-old boy on a sunny day, armed with a Su­per Soaker wa­ter toy. Be­cause of his glar­ing con­flicts of in­ter­est, and be­cause he un­der­stands the in­ner lives of politi­cians more in­ti­mately than any re­porter — be­cause, in fact, he still is a politi­cian — the Stan­dard has lately be­come what it had not been for years: a must-read.

Day af­ter day, Os­borne ham­mers out front-page head­lines and un­by­lined editorial lead­ers haranguing his for­mer col­leagues in the Con­ser­va­tive Party, who are now lead­ing the coun­try out of the Euro­pean Union with a thin man­date and in chaotic style. To a lesser de­gree, and more pre­dictably, he has also lam­basted Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party, who op­pose the Con­ser­va­tives with cor­re­spond­ing in­ep­ti­tude but grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. Vol­leys are fired and axes ground.

No­body’s rep­u­ta­tion is spared, ex­cept per­haps Os­borne’s own. The mo­ment at lunchtime when @Ge­orge_Os­borne tweets his pa­per’s front page, its leader col­umn, and a fre­quently sav­age po­lit­i­cal car­toon is now a gal­vanic junc­ture in the day’s news cy­cle.

Os­borne seems to re­serve his choic­est weapons for Theresa May, the be­lea­guered prime min­is­ter. On his first day as ed­i­tor, the front page of the Stan­dard an­nounced “Brus­sels twists knife on Brexit [as] EU chief mocks PM May with her own ‘Strong and Sta­ble’ lead­er­ship slo­gan”. The at­tacks on May have be­come only more in­tense since then. (One clin­i­cal sen­tence in a Stan­dard editorial from 21 June sim­ply read: “Enough of this non­sense.”) Os­borne’s an­i­mus against May is com­pli­cated in ori­gin — per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, tac­ti­cal — but purely felt. When I met him at the Stan­dard this past spring, he was po­lite enough about the prime min­is­ter. But ac­cord­ing to one staffer at the news­pa­per, Os­borne has told more than one per­son that he will not rest un­til she “is chopped up in bags in my freezer”. The story of Os­borne’s ed­i­tor­ship is a par­tic­u­larly Bri­tish para­ble about power and an in­sight into the of­ten-dispir­it­ing car­ni­val of pub­lic life in Lon­don in 2017. To tell it, I have had to rely on other in­flu­en­tial peo­ple, who would of­ten speak only on back­ground. But to know how and why Os­borne came to be at the Stan­dard in the first place, fir­ing his wa­ter pis­tol ev­ery which way, you need to un­der­stand the cu­ri­ous — and, his friends say, un­fair — im­age he ac­crued over 11 years in front­line politics.

Gideon Oliver Os­borne was born in 1971, to rich and well-con­nected par­ents. (He changed his first name from Gideon, which he hated, when he was 13.) His fa­ther, Sir Peter Os­borne, who started the suc­cess­ful wall­pa­per firm Os­borne & Lit­tle, is the 17th baronet of Bal­len­tay­lor and Bal­lyle­mon, a ti­tle that goes back to the 1600s. Ge­orge will in­herit the baronetcy when his fa­ther dies. Os­borne spent his child­hood at the very best pri­vate schools, fin­ish­ing at St Paul’s, a hot­house for the clever sons of wealthy Lon­don­ers. He was, by the ac­counts of con­tem­po­raries, an in­tel­li­gent, unath­letic boy, be­guiled by his­tory and com­put­ers, and un­beat­able in the de­bat­ing hall.

At Ox­ford, Os­borne stud­ied mod­ern his­tory, which he con­tin­ues to rel­ish. Much to his sub­se­quent em­bar­rass­ment, he also be­gan to run with a bray­ing crowd, and joined the Bulling­don Club, an elite din­ing club for rich young men. (Be­ing a for­mer pupil of St Paul’s rather than Har­row or Eton, Os­borne was al­most not posh enough for the Bulling­don; when he was ad­mit­ted, he was known as “Oik”.) On “Buller” nights, mem­bers of the club, to which David Cameron and Boris John­son also be­longed, put on tails and bow ties, got high on priv­i­lege, al­co­hol, and, for some, more be­sides, and be­haved boor­ishly to the point of crim­i­nal­ity. A Bulling­don mem­ber of Os­borne’s vin­tage told The Ob­server Mag­a­zine, “It was hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble. We used to smash ev­ery­thing up then pay a cheque say­ing: ‘It’s OK, we can pay for it.’”

The tail-coats car­i­ca­ture of Os­borne has per­sisted. The Daily Mail once de­scribed his man­ner as that of “an aris­to­crat in a pow­dered wig, peer­ing ner­vously through his car­riage win­dow at the Parisian mob on the eve of the French Revo­lu­tion”. In­deed, as a younger man, Os­borne him­self some­times played up his Re­gency-dandy per­sona. In his bi­og­ra­phy of the then-chan­cel­lor, Janan Ganesh re­lates a con­ver­sa­tion in which Jef­frey Archer, the scan­dal-tainted Tory grandee and best-sell­ing nov­el­ist, sug­gested that Os­borne did not have the skills to make money in the real world. “You are ob­vi­ously

OS­BORNE’S STAN­DARD HAS BE­COME WHAT IT HASN’T BEEN FOR YEARS: A MUST-READ

un­aware of my per­sonal cir­cum­stances,” Os­borne replied.

The im­age of Os­borne as a blithe and snooty aristo may be in­deli­ble, but it is be­lied by his po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. In the era of Tony Blair’s reimag­ined and, for a time, po­lit­i­cally un­stop­pable Labour Party, Os­borne was one of the first Tories to grasp the idea that the Con­ser­va­tives also needed to mod­ernise to sur­vive. (Os­borne ven­er­ates Blair and views his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, A Jour­ney, as es­sen­tial read­ing.) He saw no rea­son why Con­ser­vatism could not speak to young and ide­al­is­tic peo­ple. Al­though the pre­vail­ing view of Os­borne as chan­cel­lor was that he was a pri­mar­ily tac­ti­cal rather than ide­o­log­i­cal politi­cian, his friend and ad­vi­sor Daniel Finkel­stein says, “He has some very strong core be­liefs: he is a free-mar­ket lib­eral, but even more than that, he is a so­cial lib­eral, and an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist.”

Os­borne also knew how to play the game. You need more than a lit­tle po­lit­i­cal savoir faire to make the jour­ney from spe­cial ad­vi­sor to chan­cel­lor in a decade. He al­ways had the abil­ity, even as a young man with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence, to un­der­stand the weak­nesses in an op­po­nent’s ar­gu­ments. Be­cause of this pe­cu­liar form of em­pa­thy, he be­came in­valu­able to Con­ser­va­tive lead­ers as they pre­pared for Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions. In the early 2000s, when Os­borne worked for Wil­liam Hague, the leader of the Con­ser­va­tives at the time, he helped Hague re­hearse for PMQs by act­ing the role of Tony Blair. It was an alarm­ingly ac­cu­rate por­trayal. Os­borne could mimic not just the hand move­ments and the ac­cent but even the pre­cise ar­gu­ments Blair would make.

“One of the few times that Hague ever had a Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions disas­ter, it was be­cause Ge­orge wasn’t there and we com­pletely failed to see where Blair would go on a ques­tion,” re­calls Finkel­stein, who worked with Os­borne on Hague’s team. “Ge­orge thought it was hi­lar­i­ous that we got it com­pletely wrong with­out him.”

In 2010, when Os­borne be­came chan­cel­lor in the Tory-Lib­eral Demo­crat coali­tion govern­ment, he faced the af­ter­math of a global fi­nan­cial cri­sis and a na­tional econ­omy with swelling debt prob­lems. He once re­marked, in a poker ref­er­ence, that he started his ca­reer as chan­cel­lor hav­ing been dealt a “two and a three”. In the de­scrip­tion of one of his aides, he saw politics as “the biggest toy in the play­ground”, a play­ful­ness that man­i­fested it­self dur­ing ex­changes in par­lia­ment, when a puck­ish smile would of­ten dance across Os­borne’s face. This naked en­joy­ment of the sport of politics also fed into one of the most en­dur­ing crit­i­cisms of Os­borne and his fel­low met­ro­pol­i­tan Tories: that for them, politics was less vo­ca­tion than recre­ation. (Or, to put it an­other way, they were less in­ter­ested in the ef­fect of their de­ci­sions than in the fact of wield­ing power.) That im­pres­sion was ex­ces­sively dam­ag­ing for a politi­cian like Os­borne, who over­saw the aus­ter­ity pro­gramme the Con­ser­va­tives de­ployed in re­sponse to the deficit. It is one thing to be a rich chan­cel­lor who ad­min­is­ters se­vere cuts to pub­lic ser­vices and lo­cal govern­ment. It is an­other to ap­pear to rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity.

Os­borne was self-aware enough to know that his pub­lic per­sona was un­pop­u­lar. In 2010, Matthew Nor­man, a colum­nist for The In­de­pen­dent, wrote of his baf­fle­ment that Os­borne never tried to re­move the scent of “born-to-pun­ish su­pe­ri­or­ity” that clung to him. But An­drew Cooper, a poll­ster who worked in the Cameron govern­ment and was an early pro­moter of its mod­erni­sa­tion ef­forts, says that Os­borne’s masochism was de­lib­er­ate. Cameron, who came from an equally priv­i­leged back­ground, drew nowhere near the op­pro­brium his chan­cel­lor did — in part, says Cooper, be­cause the pub­lic saw Cameron as a “fam­ily man”. Cooper fre­quently asked Os­borne to do more to soften his im­age — for in­stance, by invit­ing the me­dia to meet him at home, with his kids — but the chan­cel­lor de­murred.

Cooper told me that when Os­borne be­came shadow chan­cel­lor, he felt he didn’t have cred­i­bil­ity with the City of Lon­don, a cru­cial qual­ity for who­ever holds the po­si­tion. “He felt he had to bat­tle re­ally hard to get that. He felt that was some­thing you didn’t tam­per with, you didn’t di­lute it,” Cooper said. “I think he con­cluded he had to take on the chin that he had this very harsh pub­lic im­age be­cause it was the down­side of the

pos­i­tive of be­ing taken se­ri­ously by peo­ple on whom a chan­cel­lor’s cred­i­bil­ity de­pends.”

In 2012, Os­borne was con­fronted with his pub­lic im­age in the most bru­tal fash­ion. At the Sum­mer Par­a­lympics in Lon­don, he was an­nounced to the sta­dium to give out the win­ners’ medals and was booed by the crowd. Cooper and oth­ers who worked with Os­borne said that the chan­cel­lor was hurt by the hu­mil­i­a­tion.

An­other of his clos­est aides told me that while it “didn’t keep him up at night”, the in­ci­dent caused Os­borne to re­flect. “He doesn’t want peo­ple to think he’s an ar­se­hole, be­cause he’s not an ar­se­hole,” said the for­mer aide.

It says some­thing about Os­borne’s con­fi­dence that he be­lieved his poor per­sonal rat­ings might not pre­clude him from even­tu­ally be­com­ing prime min­is­ter. When the Con­ser­va­tives won a ma­jor­ity in the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion, some­what to the sur­prise of poll­sters, Os­borne be­gan, in the words of one friend, to get “or­gan­ised” for a run at the lead­er­ship, by amass­ing sup­port­ers in par­lia­ment. David Cameron had promised to re­sign some­time be­fore the next sched­uled gen­eral elec­tion, in 2020. The Con­ser­va­tives, and the coun­try, would need a new leader. On the horizon, how­ever, a vast storm was brew­ing that would scup­per many ships, in­clud­ing Os­borne’s: Brexit. On 24 June 2016, a lit­tle more than a year af­ter the Con­ser­va­tives won the gen­eral elec­tion, and a lit­tle less than a year be­fore he started his job at the Stan­dard, Os­borne came down the stairs of 10 Down­ing Street in the early morn­ing and — ac­cord­ing to the riv­et­ing ac­count in Tim Shipman’s All Out War — gave a straight­for­ward as­sess­ment of the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion as he saw it. A few hours ear­lier, the coun­try had voted, by a mar­gin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent, to leave the Euro­pean Union, the biggest po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion in Bri­tain since the end of World War II. “Well,” Os­borne said, “Dave’s fucked, I’m fucked, the coun­try’s fucked.”

He was right about the first part and prob­a­bly the last. “Dave” re­signed some min­utes later with his som­bre wife, Sa­man­tha, by his side. Os­borne pre­ferred to stay in his post for the mo­ment, as the stock and cur­rency mar­kets re­acted vi­o­lently to Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the EU. But he knew with­out doubt that his ca­reer as chan­cel­lor would shortly be over, and that his po­lit­i­cal prospects were se­verely di­min­ished. His for­tunes were too closely aligned with those of both Cameron and the Re­main project; the vic­tory by the Leave lobby could do noth­ing else but crush him. What must have been es­pe­cially galling for Os­borne was that he had never wanted the ref­er­en­dum in the first place — in part be­cause he feared the Leave cam­paign might win it and in part be­cause he thought it would rip apart the Con­ser­va­tive Party it was de­signed to heal. He had ar­gued vo­cif­er­ously with Cameron on th­ese points, only to be over­ruled.

The Brexit re­sult and its af­ter­math proved Os­borne cor­rect but if he felt ran­cour about Cameron’s de­ci­sion, he did not show it. In­stead, he stud­ied the land­scape in front of him. The prime min­is­ter, Os­borne’s great­est po­lit­i­cal ally, was gone. In the com­ing days, some­one would win a hastily ar­ranged Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship elec­tion, and a new prime min­is­ter would be in place. The front run­ner was Boris John­son, the straw-haired faux-buf­foon whose de­fec­tion to the Leave cam­paign was in­stru­men­tal in its suc­cess. John­son’s celebrity was greater than any of the other po­ten­tial can­di­dates’, but he also di­vided the Con­ser­va­tive Party be­tween those who thought him a “rock star” and those who con­sid­ered him ut­terly un­suited to the

‘GE­ORGE HAD NO PLAT­FORM TO SHOW HIS RE­SILIENCE; HE’S GOT A GUN NOW’

high­est of­fice. (Os­borne, his friends say, briefly con­sid­ered a run at the lead­er­ship him­self be­fore dis­count­ing it for the same rea­sons he had deemed him­self “fucked” a few days ear­lier: he was too close to Re­main, and too close to Cameron, to suc­ceed.)

Af­ter a frenzy of in­trigue, in which John­son with­drew from the race, hav­ing been stabbed in the back by his for­mer ally, Michael Gove, only one cred­i­ble can­di­date re­mained: Theresa May. She duly be­came prime min­is­ter and, in one of her first acts, sum­moned Os­borne to 10 Down­ing Street to fire him. May rubbed salt in the wound by telling Os­borne that he should “get to know the party bet­ter” if he had am­bi­tions to one day lead the Con­ser­va­tives, a con­de­scend­ing piece of ad­vice that Os­borne did not heed.

In the months that fol­lowed Os­borne’s de­par­ture from the cab­i­net, he re­ceived of­fers from speak­ing agents, uni­ver­si­ties, pub­lish­ers and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions. He took a couple of those gigs, in­clud­ing the ex­traor­di­nar­ily lu­cra­tive con­sul­tancy with Black-Rock. His speeches, mean­while, earned him tens of thou­sands of pounds at a time. Mak­ing money was fun, and kept him in silk hand­ker­chiefs. But even though he re­mained an MP, it was clear to his friends he longed to be closer to the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. Al­most pre­cisely at that mo­ment, an op­por­tu­nity arose. The de­tails of how Os­borne was ap­pointed at the Stan­dard are un­set­tled and dif­fer de­pend­ing on whom you talk to. In late Jan­uary, Sarah Sands, the pre­vi­ous ed­i­tor of the pa­per, an­nounced she was tak­ing a new post as ed­i­tor of BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme. That news led some es­tab­lished print jour­nal­ists to throw their hats into the ring: An­drew Pierce of the Daily Mail, Sarah Bax­ter of The Sun­day Times, Matthew d’An­cona of The Guardian, and a hand­ful of oth­ers. That none of th­ese can­di­dates ul­ti­mately stood a chance against a man who had edited just two is­sues of a stu­dent mag­a­zine is a tes­ta­ment to the idio­syn­cratic tastes of Evgeny Lebe­dev, the Stan­dard’s 37-year-old Rus­sian-born owner.

He is the son of Alexan­der Lebe­dev, a rich Rus­sian and for­mer KGB agent who made his money in bank­ing and other in­vest­ments in the post-Soviet era. Lebe­dev père is an in­tense and some­what in­scrutable prod­uct of his train­ing and his gen­er­a­tion. De­spite a lightly hip­ster­ish wardrobe (skinny jeans, train­ers), he gives the strong im­pres­sion of a man not to be tri­fled with. On a Rus­sian television show in 2011, Sergei Polon­sky, a fel­low mil­lion­aire, made an off­hand re­mark that he would like to give Lebe­dev a “punch in the chops”. Lebe­dev hit Polon­sky in the face so hard that Polon­sky fell off his chair. Af­ter the in­ci­dent, Lebe­dev was un­re­pen­tant. He said his fel­low pan­el­list had pre­sented a “threat” that he had “neatly neu­tralised”.

Lebe­dev fils is an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent species of cat. Never less than im­pec­ca­bly at­tired, with doll-like cheeks above a tight, thick, black beard, he has spent most of his life in the UK. He now lives be­tween his lav­ishly fur­nished man­sion in Hamp­ton Court and houses in Italy. He likes the the­atre. He takes a lot of pri­vate jets. He is moved by the plight of the African ele­phant. He en­joys the com­pany of celebri­ties, par­tic­u­larly ac­tors. He throws wildly gen­er­ous par­ties that, ac­cord­ing to one friend, would put Gatsby to shame. He is of­ten late.

In 2009, the Lebe­devs bought a 75 per cent share in the loss-mak­ing Lon­don Evening Stan­dard from the Daily Mail and Gen­eral Trust for the sum of one pound. (As a spy, Alexan­der Lebe­dev had lived on Earls Ter­race, in Kens­ing­ton, a short walk from the Stan­dard’s of­fices.) The Lebe­devs promptly made the ti­tle free, a de­ci­sion that proved to be a mas­ter­stroke. As a paid-for news­pa­per, the Stan­dard’s cir­cu­la­tion had de­clined pre­cip­i­tously and advertising had plum­meted. But a free news­pa­per with the Stan­dard’s her­itage, handed to nearly a mil­lion com­muters ev­ery evening, proved a more at­trac­tive propo­si­tion for ad­ver­tis­ers. Within three years, the pa­per was prof­itable again.

The Lebe­devs had less luck with their other for­ays into Bri­tish me­dia. In 2009, they also be­gan dis­cus­sions with the own­ers of The In­de­pen­dent, an­other peren­ni­ally loss-mak­ing news­pa­per, about a pos­si­ble sale. (I worked at The In­de­pen­dent more than a decade ago.) That deal, in which the Lebe­devs bought both The In­de­pen­dent and The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day, also for one pound, was signed in 2010. Both ti­tles con­tin­ued to haem­or­rhage money, and last year Evgeny Lebe­dev an­nounced that The In­de­pen­dent hence­forth

would ex­ist as a dig­i­tal-only out­let. Many jour­nal­ists lost their jobs. (This sum­mer, it was re­ported that a Saudi in­vestor, Sul­tan Muham­mad Abul­ja­dayel, had taken a stake — some­where be­tween 25 and 50 per cent — in the In­de­pen­dent, mean­ing Lebe­dev was no longer a ma­jor­ity share­holder.)

In 2009, there had been some un­der­stand­able bunch­ing-up of skirts about a for­mer KGB man as­sum­ing con­trol of three of Bri­tain’s news­pa­pers, but those con­cerns were quickly over­rid­den by the sim­ple and re­fresh­ing fact that some­one, any­one, wanted to in­vest se­ri­ous quan­ti­ties of money in jour­nal­ism. In any event, Alexan­der Lebe­dev’s in­flu­ence over the pa­pers ap­pears to have been slight. The ti­tles are un­der Evgeny’s con­trol.

The younger Lebe­dev has never in­di­cated he wishes to steer his news­pa­pers into new po­lit­i­cal wa­ters. In­deed, hav­ing spo­ken to many peo­ple who know him (al­though I did not, de­spite sev­eral months of re­as­sur­ances and reschedul­ing, in­ter­view Evgeny him­self), it was dif­fi­cult to dis­cern a clear an­swer about what mo­ti­vates him. Si­mon Kel­ner, who once worked for Lebe­dev as ed­i­tor of The In­de­pen­dent, gave the fullest re­sponse to that ques­tion: “I don’t think he ac­tu­ally wants power; I think he wants in­flu­ence,” Kel­ner said. “And it’s a very par­tic­u­lar type of in­flu­ence: it’s the abil­ity to in­vite peo­ple to a party and they will come. That is ba­si­cally the in­flu­ence that he wants. He doesn’t want to change the govern­ment; he doesn’t want to ei­ther up­hold or wreck the sys­tem. As far as I can see, he’s got no per­cep­ti­ble ide­ol­ogy. He wants to be thought of as a re­spected mem­ber of Lon­don café so­ci­ety. But he wants to be thought of as a per­son of sub­stance as well. Now, whether he does the things that make peo­ple think he is a per­son of sub­stance is an­other mat­ter, but he would cer­tainly want to be re­garded as, you know, some­one pretty im­por­tant.”

If th­ese are Lebe­dev’s aims, then he has been suc­cess­ful, up to a point. It’s al­ways sur­pris­ing how of­ten he crops up not just in the so­ci­ety pages but as a foot­note to more in­ter­est­ing en­gage­ments. In Fe­bru­ary 2016, for in­stance, Boris John­son and his wife, Ma­rina Wheeler, hosted a din­ner at which John­son and Michael Gove de­lib­er­ated about whether to join the Leave cam­paign: an oc­ca­sion of real im­por­tance, it would turn out. Ac­cord­ing to Sarah Vine, a Daily Mail colum­nist, who is mar­ried to Gove, an iPhone was propped up in the mid­dle of the ta­ble and put on speak­er­phone so that John­son and Gove could speak to an­other Con­ser­va­tive cab­i­net mem­ber and a lawyer about the EU. The only

‘I BRING AN AT­TI­TUDE AND I DON’T GIVE A DAMN IF SOME ARE OF­FENDED’

other per­son at the din­ner not mar­ried ei­ther to Gove or to John­son was Evgeny Lebe­dev, who ar­rived, in Vine’s de­scrip­tion, “im­pec­ca­bly groomed and suited”. In the end, it was a puz­zling sort of evening: the two politi­cians talked to the iPhone while Vine, Wheeler and Lebe­dev sat at the other end of the ta­ble, ate slow-roasted lamb, and talked in whis­pers so as not to dis­turb “the boys”.

All news­pa­per pro­pri­etors re­serve the right to be capri­cious. That’s part of the fun. They are, in their strange king­doms, ab­so­lute monar­chs. But the de­ci­sions that Evgeny Lebe­dev makes as a me­dia owner, say those who have worked with him, are par­tic­u­larly in­flu­enced by a small co­terie of friends and ad­vi­sors. There is, in short, a Lebe­dev court. For ex­am­ple, he had an as­sis­tant and ad­vi­sor for some years, an able and lo­qua­cious young jour­nal­ist named Amol Ra­jan, upon whose coun­sel he came in­creas­ingly to rely and who still has his ear. In 2013, seem­ingly out of nowhere, Ra­jan was made ed­i­tor of The In­de­pen­dent, at the age of 29. Lebe­dev, it can be as­sumed, is not a pure mer­i­to­crat: his friends do bet­ter in his en­ter­prises than peo­ple who are not his friends. (This ap­proach con­trasts markedly with Os­borne’s in govern­ment; the chan­cel­lor cast a wide net to find the most tal­ented ad­vi­sors.)

It was lit­tle sur­prise, then, that when Sarah Sands an­nounced she was leav­ing the Stan­dard, prospec­tive can­di­dates tried to curry favour with Lebe­dev. Ac­cord­ing to some well-placed sources I spoke to, Matthew d’An­cona, The Guardian colum­nist, asked Os­borne to put in a good word for him with Lebe­dev. (D’An­cona de­clined to speak to me for this story.) Os­borne’s and Lebe­dev’s paths had crossed a few times, as those of se­nior politi­cians and news­pa­per pro­pri­etors tend to, but they were not es­pe­cially close. It oc­curred to Os­borne that the job for which d’An­cona was ap­ply­ing sounded rather in­ter­est­ing. He talked to a few friends about the “mad idea” he had. They were en­thu­si­as­tic. Os­borne called Lebe­dev and sug­gested that he’d like the Stan­dard po­si­tion. Lebe­dev, says some­one who wit­nessed the re­cruit­ment pro­ce­dure, was thrilled at the prospect of Os­borne in the ed­i­tor’s chair. Ev­ery­one else who ap­plied had solid cre­den­tials but, said the Lebe­dev con­fi­dant, “they were just jour­nal­ists”. Os­borne of­fered some­thing dif­fer­ent, not least a qual­ity Lebe­dev prizes highly: celebrity.

Within a couple of weeks, Os­borne and Lebe­dev had agreed to terms. Shortly af­ter­wards, Ra­jan, by now the me­dia ed­i­tor at the BBC, an­nounced in a series of 11 breath­less tweets an ex­clu­sive whose prove­nance was not hard to fathom. One of Ra­jan’s tweets read: “Un­doubt­edly huge coup for ES, which gets v high pro­file + cal­i­bre leader — and also for ES owner (my for­mer boss) @mrevgenylebe­dev”. Ra­jan also sug­gested that the ap­point­ment would not da­m­age Os­borne’s “still vast” po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, and that the staff at the news­pa­per would be “gal­vanised”. Ra­jan did not men­tion that he and Lebe­dev had dis­cussed Ra­jan tak­ing the Stan­dard job, well be­fore Os­borne ever had his “mad idea”. In late May, I vis­ited Os­borne at the Stan­dard. It was a lit­tle af­ter 12.30 in the af­ter­noon, a fre­netic mo­ment for an evening news­pa­per whose sec­ond edi­tion, the West End Fi­nal, goes “off stone”, as they say in the ar­got, at one o’clock. Os­borne seemed re­laxed. He was still new in the job but had set­tled into the rhythm eas­ily enough. (To smooth his tran­si­tion, he had brought his as­sis­tant from par­lia­ment, Zoe Lord, to work for him at the Stan­dard; af­ter our in­ter­view, she brought him a boxed lunch and a bunch of grapes as he walked into his next meet­ing.) From the sofa in his of­fice, he pointed out the framed front pages from his first three weeks, which hung on his wall, most of which seemed out­right at­tacks on Theresa May’s cav­a­lier ap­proach to Brexit. He also showed me that evening’s front page, which he had just tweeted out. It con­cerned an ar­gu­ment over in­tel­li­gence leaks be­tween Bri­tish and Amer­i­can ser­vices in the wake of the Manch­ester bomb­ing. The head­line read: “What spe­cial re­la­tion­ship?”

Os­borne in­sisted he was not us­ing his new role to set­tle any vendet­tas. If he at­tacked some­one, he said, it was be­cause he and the pa­per dis­agreed with their po­si­tion, noth­ing more. Ev­ery­one knew he was against Brexit and thought the govern­ment’s ap­proach to its dis­cus­sions about leav­ing the union had been mis­han­dled. But it was re­veal­ing how much he fused his own politics with those of the Stan­dard. “The pa­per’s view,” he told me, “is it’s met­ro­pol­i­tan, it’s small-l lib­eral, it’s in­ter­na­tion­al­ist, it’s pro-busi­ness, and I don’t think that voice is heard enough in Bri­tish politics at the mo­ment.”

When I sug­gested that he seemed to save his most vi­cious at­tacks for his for­mer col­leagues in the Con­ser­va­tive Party, he said, as po­litely as he could, that I was miss­ing the point. “Most news­pa­pers are very par­ti­san. I’m stick­ing it to the Cor­bynista left and the hard-Brexit right. I feel that mil­lions of peo­ple are in that space, and feel un­rep­re­sented.”

As a mis­sion state­ment, this seemed laud­able. There is a huge space left un­filled in Bri­tish politics, so yawn­ing a chasm that there is se­ri­ous talk of a new po­lit­i­cal move­ment, sim­i­lar to France’s En Marche, to oc­cupy the cen­tre ground. But Os­borne’s plea that he is an equal-op­por­tu­nity as­sas­sin would be more cred­i­ble if he did not have quite so much skin in the game. In­tel­li­gent read­ers can’t help but in­ter­pret his front pages and editorial de­ci­sions in the light of his known lack of re­spect for the prime min­is­ter and his dis­ap­proval of a head­long rush into Brexit.

Os­borne told me that he didn’t care how peo­ple in­ter­preted his news­pa­per or what peo­ple thought of him. “One of the things I al­ways felt as chan­cel­lor is you’ve got to make de­ci­sions and you’ve got to be pre­pared to make calls,” he said. “And it’s so easy in life and in politics and in jour­nal­ism to al­ways pull your punches and al­ways put off the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion. I was per­fectly used

as chan­cel­lor to be­ing con­tro­ver­sial and to peo­ple hav­ing strong views about me, pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, but I thought at the time: I’m in this job, and I’m paid to make de­ci­sions, and I’m go­ing to make the best judge­ment calls I can. I take the same ap­proach to jour­nal­ism. I’m paid to pro­duce a pa­per that has at­ti­tude and gives voice to peo­ple whose voices are not be­ing heard, and I don’t re­ally give a damn if some are of­fended by that.”

One can imag­ine a few left-lean­ing politi­cians for whom Os­borne’s voice-to-thevoice­less speech might stick in the craw. Nev­er­the­less, it’s clear Os­borne be­lieves it; equally clearly, there is self-in­ter­est at play in his de­ci­sions. You can read the Stan­dard through the prism of some­one try­ing to pro­voke the cur­rent govern­ment, but also of some­one at­tempt­ing to pro­tect and bur­nish his own legacy. The tightrope upon which he walks was il­lus­trated when the Gren­fell Tower caught fire in June, killing at least 80 peo­ple in west Lon­don. It was a pro­found tragedy that be­came in­tensely po­lit­i­cal. Gren­fell was in­hab­ited mostly by the poor, by stu­dents, and im­mi­grants, but it sat in the heart of one of the rich­est neigh­bour­hoods in the cap­i­tal. In the af­ter­math, many pa­pers, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ment stal­wart The Times, ran pow­er­ful in­ves­tiga­tive series on the mis­steps and cost-cut­ting that led to the fire.

Os­borne’s Stan­dard cov­ered the disas­ter in a dif­fer­ent way: call­ing on peo­ple to show “unity in grief” and rais­ing funds for vic­tims. Os­borne was shaken by the tragedy. He could see the fire burn­ing from his house, and later in the day, he de­clared him­self “still numb with what I saw this morn­ing”. But he seemed anx­ious about politi­cis­ing Gren­fell. One Stan­dard staffer told me that Os­borne, who was on a flight in the hours fol­low­ing the fire, sent a note to the op-ed de­part­ment telling them not to go “OTT” in their Gren­fell analy­ses.

There was spec­u­la­tion that Os­borne’s editorial line on Gren­fell was born of a con­cern that the bud­get cuts he over­saw as chan­cel­lor might be linked to the deaths of mostly poor Lon­don­ers. (This was, in fact, pre­cisely Labour’s line of at­tack.) But Os­borne in­sists that wasn’t the case.

“I was scep­ti­cal of the in­stant ex­perts in other pa­pers who rushed to blame the whole thing on Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Coun­cil sav­ing costs,” he told me, not­ing that the cladding ac­cused of ac­cel­er­at­ing the fire was in use across the UK long be­fore aus­ter­ity mea­sures took ef­fect. “It’s the kind of sloppy jour­nal­ism I’m try­ing to get my pa­per, at least, away from. The fail­ure was a mas­sive fail­ure of fire stan­dards over many, many years, and that is a scan­dal we’ve talked about.”

Peter Oborne, a con­ser­va­tive colum­nist and a long-time critic of Os­borne’s, told me that such mo­ments il­lus­trate how Os­borne’s con­flicts of in­ter­est di­min­ished him as an ed­i­tor. “What we need, what we haven’t seen, but what we would ex­pect to see from a Lon­don pa­per of the stand­ing of the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard would be a re­ally foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion about the govern­ment fail­ings which have led to the fire,” Oborne told me in the days that fol­lowed the tragedy. “As far as I can tell, noth­ing of the sort has oc­curred.”

If Gren­fell showed the dan­gers for Os­borne in his foray into jour­nal­ism, elec­tion night in June showed him at his most po­tent. Theresa May had called a snap elec­tion to strengthen her own po­si­tion, with her party ap­par­ently more than 20 points ahead in the opin­ion polls. But a series of tac­ti­cal and strate­gic er­rors on her part, as well as a grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that she was an unin­spir­ing fig­ure to lead the coun­try at a cru­cial time, led to a dis­as­trous re­sult: she failed to win an out­right ma­jor­ity.

Os­borne, who had been booked to com­ment on elec­tion night by ITV, could not wipe the smile from his face when it be­came clear that May’s Con­ser­va­tives had been broad­sided. (One wag on Twit­ter showed a screen grab of Os­borne’s beam­ing face at this mo­ment, with the cap­tion: “Get your­self a girl who looks at you the way Ge­orge Os­borne looks at exit polls.”) A few days later, dur­ing a Sun­day-morn­ing ap­pear­ance on the BBC, Os­borne clar­i­fied his thoughts on the prime min­is­ter’s prospects. “Theresa May,” he said, “is a dead woman walk­ing.”

A for­mer Down­ing Street aide was de­lighted by the ex-chan­cel­lor’s will­ing­ness to be forth­right. The aide told me that in the af­ter­math of the ref­er­en­dum, af­ter fir­ing Os­borne, Theresa May’s team had gone out of its way to trash his legacy in brief­ings to the press. At that time, said the aide, “Ge­orge didn’t have a plat­form to show his re­silience.” But, he con­tin­ued, “he’s got a gun now. One thing peo­ple in the Con­ser­va­tive Party will re­alise is: ‘you mess with Ge­orge Os­borne at your peril.’”

This speaks to the cen­tral ques­tion about Os­borne’s move to the Stan­dard: whether it will be a bridge back to front-line politics for him, or whether, in fact, he has poured paraf­fin on the bridge and tossed a lit match in its di­rec­tion. Few who have wit­nessed the topsy-turvy past two years in Bri­tish politics would want to make firm pre­dic­tions about the next two. Who knows what will hap­pen as Bri­tain lurches to­wards the Brexit dead­line in 2019? No cur­rent mem­ber of the govern­ment will emerge with much credit. For Os­borne, this may not be the worst time to sit on the side­lines. Sam Coates, a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist for The Times, said that Os­borne might be con­tent as long as he has in­flu­ence.

“I can­not stare into his soul,” Coates said, “but I think Os­borne likes power. And power is ex­e­cuted in a num­ber of forms.”

Could Os­borne still be prime min­is­ter one day? It seems hard to imag­ine. Shortly be­fore I wrote this piece, I re­ceived a call from a very se­nior fig­ure in the right-wing me­dia. This per­son told me that Os­borne had fa­tally dam­aged his own prospects of ever re­turn­ing to govern­ment through his pub­lic dis­loy­alty to the party.

“He’s made too many en­e­mies,” said the source. “A lot of Tories will find it very dif­fi­cult for him to be seen as one of the tribe any more.”

On the ques­tion of whether Os­borne has made a good ed­i­tor of the Stan­dard, the same se­nior me­dia fig­ure was slightly more gen­er­ous. “It’s an in­ter­est­ing ap­point­ment. De­pend­ing on your point of view, he’s ei­ther hi­jacked the Stan­dard to lead a great re­venge at­tack, or he’s rein­vig­o­rated the Stan­dard with a po­lit­i­cal pulse.”

What, I asked, was his own view of Os­borne as ed­i­tor?

“As the Chi­nese premier said about the French Revo­lu­tion: it’s too early to tell.”

On friend­lier terms: Ge­orge Os­borne in the front row along­side Theresa May lis­ten­ing to Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron ad­dress­ing the Con­ser­va­tives’ an­nual con­fer­ence, Manch­ester, Oc­to­ber 2013

Press barons: Evgeny and Alexan­der Lebe­dev, me­dia pro­pri­etors who own the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard among other in­ter­ests

The news states­man: ed­i­tor Ge­orge Os­borne with staff in the news­room at the Stan­dard

(note his neme­sis Theresa May on the TV be­hind him), sum­mer 2017

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.