Sitting in the foyer of Northcliffe House, I was overwhelmed by my surroundings, and how it loomed over Kensington High Street. It houses the Independent, the Daily Mail, The Metro, and the newspaper I was there to visit, The London Evening Standard — so naturally it was buzzing with busy journalists who had no time to pay any heed to a random person who, unbeknownst to them, was about to interview their boss.
The building itself is awe inspiring, all white, gold, and glass. The perfect setting for an interview with a man many believe to have resided in one ivory tower or another for the majority of his career.
That man is George Osborne. His office sits at the back of the Evening Standard newsroom, a bustling hub of creativity and concentration. I am brought through and briefly shown around it — Mr Osborne’s new role as Editor of the team I pass through is something I’m eager to discuss with him. In the job since May, he is still fresh in the role… something he and I have in common.
I step into his office (which is remarkably minimalistic for someone with his amount of wealth). He asks me to sit down, and himself reclines on a sofa in front of me. He’s calm, collected, and charming, and it puzzles me trying to work out how much of that is inherent and how much is extensive media training.
First, I ask him about his appointment as honorary Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester. He told me he was “flattered” to have been asked, and attributes it to his longstanding relationship with Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell through various projects in the scientific field and, more recently, the Royce institute.
His appointment caused somewhat of a stir in Manchester. The university’s Post-Crash Economics Society wrote to the Guardian, saying the decision was “undemocratic”, and a joint statement from last year’s exec team vehemently criticised it as well. When I asked how he felt about that, and what he would say to his critics, he told me that he’d “be disappointed in the state of student life if there weren’t differing views about the appointment of former politicians to posts at universities.”
He continued “students will have the opportunity if they want to, to ask me what it’s like to be chancellor/hold senior political office in this country and they can debate with me some of the decisions we took at the time and some of the big issues that face our country.”
I asked what actually would feature in his lectures — would they merely serve as a justification for the decisions he made as chancellor, or would they incorporate a broader look at the state of the national and international economy?
“I’ll be led by the students and the people that want to come and engage with me. We can either talk about the past and the pretty dramatic events in British Politics over the past ten years… or we can talk about the big decisions that the world faces at the moment…I’m up for a discussion about anything and I certainly don’t think I have all the answers.”
Obviously, he knows his new students may not feel as he does about his policies or his views for the future. I asked him if he expected lively debate because of this, and he responded by saying “I hope so – university would be a very boring place if everyone agreed with each other.”
Despite his bravado however, his assistant mentioned he is feeling somewhat nervous about his first visit to Manchester, and given that the university is practically painted red, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.
Mr Osborne takes up his role on the Honorary Professor of Economics within a matter of weeks. But before then, there is the small matter of editing a daily newspaper, at a time when British politics feels in a permanent state of turbulence.
Last month, it was revealed that the figures Theresa May used as Home Secretary to crack down on international students overstaying their permit were extremely misleading. Did Mr Osborne feel he could have done more?
His response was, at best, slightly vague, stating that “I argued consistently in government and now as Editor of this newspaper for Britain to be as open to foreign students as possible” and that international students are “a fantastic thing for… Britain.” It seemed clear to me that he certainly disagreed with their use, and when I pushed him, he pointed to the editorials of the paper he owns, which “broadly reflected his political outlook” to begin with anyway, and said “my views on the student numbers are there for everyone to read.”
And what a read they are – last month the editorial in the Standard read “the then Home Secretary thought it was better to stick with false information than get the real facts, which might force her to change the policy.”
Harsh words – although not quite as vivid as Mr Osborne’s alleged desire, reported in a recent Esquire profile, to chop up Ms May and put her in food bags in his freezer. Cold.
Speaking of his time in Government, one of Mr Osborne’s major political projects was the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. The transport minister Chris Grayling recently opted not to electrify the train line between Manchester and Leeds, meaning the journey time will remain as long as ever, and the Associated Press recently published analysis that stated the North of England is still primarily reliant upon 19th century infrastructure.
I asked him: do you think your project has failed?
He insisted not: “the Northern Powerhouse is very much alive but instead of being just a project that is talked about in Central London or is the product of one politician’s plans, it is now something that lives and breathes in the North of England.”
That didn’t really answer my question on the lack of modern transport infrastructure, so he continued that “the whole is bigger than the parts” – he explained that whilst transport development may be screeching to a halt (as it were), the other projects that are thriving in the North and the North’s combined population means it’s starting to “rival London, New York, and Tokyo.”
He did concede though that transport is important, and that the North “ultimately need[s] a new train line through the pennines”, which is something that he knows won’t happen overnight.
I also asked him how the project benefits students, and he pointed out that “it’s not healthy to be in a situation where other parts of the country feel overshadowed by London, [and] if you’re a graduate of the university, you need choices to fulfil your career and full potential… you’re now able to do that in Manchester and Liverpool as well as London.”
Time had flown by – we were prompted that we only had five minutes left, so before we finished I wanted to ask him about his new role as editor. I was quick to point out that he hasn’t been in the position on the long time, and he was quicker to retort that neither have I – touché. However, I wanted to ask him what he wanted to say to those who have criticised his lack of experience.
“As always in life, the only way you can prove people who doubt you wrong is by just doing it… when I announced that I was going to become an editor of a paper, I managed to offend 2 professions: politicians and journalists… but the proof is in the pudding – every day there is Evening Standard produced.
“I’ve published Corbynistas and hardcore brexiteers [in the Evening Standard]; people assumed it would all be towing the conservative line and now I get criticised for attacking the conservatives too much! Well that strikes me as getting the balance about right.”
Did he have any advice, from one new Editor to another?
“I hope when you edit the paper that you’re not afraid to call things as you see it, and you have to accept that people aren’t always going to agree with you, but if they did you’d probably be doing something wrong.”