Last Friday I arrived for a relaxed lunch in a City of London hostelry with two distinguished public servants. ‘Guess who has been made editor of the Evening Standard?’ they asked.
For non-Londoners and overseas readers I should explain that the London Evening Standard is the newspaper that is read, or at least picked up and glanced at, by close to 1m Londoners each day from Monday to Friday.
It is the only London evening newspaper. Your correspondent has known of it for many years. In my youth I was a newspaper delivery boy. In those days there were three London evening newspapers, The Evening News, The Star and the Standard. Alas, only one survives, which means that it has the kind of monopoly that brings disadvantages, as well as financial advantages.
For the reader the disadvantage is that, in the absence of competition, there is only one edition, and this, apparently, is printed in the morning. Nevertheless, it is read by many of us, not least for an excellent financial and City section, and the experienced observations of its veteran foreign and defence correspondent, Robert Fox. There is also plenty of sport, and a reasonably grown-up gossip column.
It is a champion of most things ‘London’. It also prints interesting political columns, which are all the more interesting because they are not surrounded by competing political columns. Thanks to their monopoly position, these columns are likely to be attracting more attention than they otherwise might.
Which brings me back to the question my two friends asked. It has to be said, I failed the test miserably. And when they told me the new editor was going to be George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer, my suspicion was that April Fools’ Day had arrived early this year.
Given that Osborne is still a serving member of parliament, and given that he has already accepted a lucrative consultancy role with the asset management firm BlackRock, people have been asking how he can possibly combine editorship of a prominent newspaper with these other roles. He may possess boundless energy and require little sleep, but the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ crops up frequently.
Osborne is certainly not a hero of mine. I have consistently attacked what I regarded, and still do, as his misguided policies of austerity while he was chancellor, not least in my book Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment.
But there are times when some matters of national interest are so important that they require one to rise above even such contentious subjects as Osborne’s austerity programme. And the future of this country is one of them.
Osborne, like me, is a passionate ‘Remainer’ in the Brexit debate. He apparently plans to use his editorship as a platform for opposing Prime Minister Theresa May’s lame acceptance of the result of the advisory and non-binding referendum in which a mere 37% of eligible voters opted for Brexit.
Some 60% of those Londoners who voted were Remainers. Most of the assertions that persuaded the other 40% to vote for Brexit were outright misrepresentations, or ‘alternative facts’. If an Evening Standard under the editorship of Osborne can help to persuade some of that 40% to think again, this could have a decisive impact on the national opinion polls and the eventual outcome.
In the belief that the future of this country and our grandchildren is at stake, I wish Osborne luck in this campaign.
William Keegan is Senior Economics Commentator for The Observer.