How Osborne shed his skin... and slid back to his old hunting ground
Do you know how long it is since George Osborne left Parliament? A mere seven months. No, I can’t believe it either, but I’ve just looked it up, and apparently it’s true. Seven months. It feels like half a lifetime ago.
In my memory, at least, the former chancellor belongs to a simpler, quieter, more innocent age: an age in which, for want of anything more momentous, TV news bulletins would lead night after night with a proposed tax on Cornish pasties.
Those of us who pine for those halcyon days were given a special treat yesterday, as Mr Osborne returned to Parliament as the guest speaker at a press gallery lunch.
“Well,” he began, a serpentine leer slithering across his face. “It’s good to be back.”
These days, among too many other jobs to list here, Mr Osborne edits a free local newspaper, the London Evening Standard. Much though he was enjoying his new life, he said, it did feel “good to get away from Fleet Street, where all people do is carp from the sidelines, and to come to the place where there’s real power, and the real decisions are being made about Britain’s long-term future.”
He paused and glanced down at his notes. “Oh, sorry, this is my speech to Goldman Sachs tomorrow…”
It’s hard to believe now, but, back in those far-flung days of seven months ago, the consensus among journalists was that Mr Osborne would quickly tire of working in newspapers. As it turns out, though, he genuinely does appear to love it. Compared with the tightly wound coil of venom that used to rear up and hiss at the dispatch box, this new version of Mr Osborne – tieless, open-collared, jacket unbuttoned – seems almost relaxed. And it’s obvious why: journalism has freed him. As a politician, he could only trash his opponents. But as a journalist, he can trash his own side, too. Particularly those on his own side who support what he calls “a hard Brexit”. Yesterday he set about Tory Brexiteers with happy abandon. He scorned them for their pursuit of “fantasy trade deals”, accused them of touchiness (“The rebels have become the Establishment, and they don’t really like it up ’em”), recalled with pleasure the time George W Bush threatened to execute a young Boris Johnson (“A broken promise, unfortunately”), and scoffed at Theresa May’s travails in Brussels.
“There are similarities between politics and newspapers,” said Mr Osborne, eyes glinting, tongue flickering. “Like ‘giving it away’: that’s both the commercial policy of the Evening Standard, and the negotiating policy of the British Government.”
The Tory party in general, he declared, would struggle until it took a leaf out of his book, and embraced “modern Britain”. But for all its current faults, he added nobly, he wasn’t going to “walk away” from “the party I helped build”.
I didn’t realise Mr Osborne was 200 years old. In politics, time really does fly.