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Why George Osborne should quit politics before editing The Evening Standard

The former Chancellor owes it to his new journalistic team.

There is no more precious freedom than the freedom of the press. It is the freedom that underpins all our freedoms, the one guarantee of freedom of speech, the ultimate protection against abuse of power, the clearest statement that nobody is above the law, nobody is beyond question, nobody can monopolise public attention. The campaigns, the scoops, even the ridicule holds power to account.”

Who could disagree with this powerful defence of Britain’s media and the vital role it plays in our democracy? The new editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, certainly wouldn’t, because he delivered those words in a speech in April last year as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So how could anyone, least of all Mr Osborne, fail to see the serious conflict of interest in the appointment of one of the biggest beasts of the Westminster jungle to edit London's longest-running daily newspaper whilst moonlighting as a Conservative MP?

I'm not sure how many of George Osborne's constituents in Cheshire read the London Evening Standard, but they will surely feel aggrieved that their local MP has announced that he will "speak for London and Londoners". It’s a strange move for a politician who has sought to rebrand himself as the champion of the Northern Powerhouse.

This appointment is bad news for the reputation of politicians, journalists and the relationship between the two. Trust in politics and politicians is rock bottom. People understandably question how Mr Osborne will find time to represent his Northern constituents well alongside his busy life as a London newspaper editor, an adviser to an American investment firm, an after dinner speaker on the books of the Washington Speaker's Bureau and a fellow of an American think tank. Those of us who put in 70 hours a week as constituency MPs have a right to feel angry that the reputation of MPs collectively, still battered from the experience of the expenses scandal, will be further damaged by the perception that we don’t give our full time and time and attention to representing the interests of our constituents.

Journalists have a right to be angry, too. For all the cynicism about the media, it is a noble profession. Most enter it with a strong conviction that sunlight is the best disinfectant. They champion the public interest by taking on vested interests. In an era of "fake news" the role of trained and professional journalists has never been more important. What sort of message does it send about the revolving door between Westminster and the media, and that a former Chancellor, who many believe still harbours big politicial ambitions, can walk out of the Treasury and into the news room without any real qualification to do so?

A man cannot have two masters. Is George Osborne a champion of the people of London, or a champion of the people of Cheshire? London’s Labour Mayor, MPs and council leaders can reasonably ask if they will continue to receive fair coverage from a Conservative MP in the top job. But equally, Conservatives will wonder whether the Standard’s editorial line will hold the government to account or simply attempt to destabilise a Prime Minister, who many believe the editor of the Evening Standard would still like to replace.

The Evening Standard is a great newspaper staffed by great people. They deserve better than to have their reporting subjected to daily questioning about bias because of the position of its editor.

So at the risk of upsetting the new editor of my city’s daily paper, George Osborne must decide if he really wants the job. If he does, he must put his political ambitions behind him and resign as a Member of Parliament.


 

 

 

 

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.