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What we learned from George Osborne’s first day editing the Evening Standard

If the former Chancellor wants to use the paper to chart a route back to power, it's unlikely to be all that successful.  

By Patrick Maguire

 “Now I’ve got to get in there – we’ve a paper to get off stone!” And with that, at 7.01am this morning, George Osborne as good as skipped into Northcliffe House for his first day in the Evening Standard editor’s chair.  

His inaugural edition – never mind that the Standard is now mostly produced overnight – has not disappointed those who predicted Osborne would weaponise the 900,000 circulation freesheet as part of a guerrilla campaign geared towards either a) somehow reinstating Cameroonism as the Tories’ governing philosophy, or, b) monstering Theresa May as revenge for his sacking.

But Osborne’s nauseatingly glib hat tip to newspaper jargon raises an intriguing question: how different is his new paper, and will he be any good at his job?

The answer to both of those questions depends on what you think his job is. If it’s “editing a passable freesheet for commuters without wifi”, the answer is probably yes. Cara Delevingne is still on the front page, and the paper’s richest seams of content (think Isis and knife crime) are still very much open for business – not that Osborne was ever going to put a stop to that.

But, of course, that isn’t the question anybody cares about. So, on today’s evidence, how viable is Osborne’s Standard as an effective cheerleader for liberal centrism? On the day Osborne’s appointment was announced, the Spectator’s James Forsyth neatly surmised that the only point in the former Chancellor taking the job was turning it into the Evening Macron, a name that speaks for itself.

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Osborne seems to have tried to do just that. Centrist godfather Michael Bloomberg writes the main opinion column – albeit on air pollution, though the symbolism is clear – and Osborne’s pal, French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, is profiled at length. Though later replaced by the tepid – and altogether less partisan “UK HITS BACK AT BRUSSELS LEAKS”, the original splash headline – “BRUSSELS TWISTS THE KNIFE ON BREXIT” – is pure catnip for the 48 per cent. So too, is its set-piece political poll on May’s inability to hit immigration targets and combative leader.

Branding Brexit a “historic mistake” – what else from the strategic genius behind Project Fear? – the editorial hits out at “unrealistic…claims made about the strength of Britain’s hand”, explicitly rejects the idea that last year’s referendum or next month’s election gave or will give May a mandate for anything, and leaves the door open for the paper to back a second referendum on the terms of the deal. “The question about our membership of the EU, was, however, the only question the British people were asked,” it declares, in a variation on a Lib Dem favourite.

Centrist advocacy aside, the defining theme appears to be hostility to May. A valid and worthy platform, sure – she is the Prime Minister. He has made much of reintroducing a political cartoon to the paper – all the better to rinse his erstwhile leader with – and today’s goes in hard on May’s robotic turns on the campaign trail (it has to be said, though, that if waggish cartoons achieved anything, Matt from the Telegraph would be head of the Number 10 policy unit by now).

But like Osborne’s boyish statement of intent on the steps of his new office, it all feels a little glib, a little too transparently Machiavellian, a little too much like a wink to the cameras. Such is the overriding obstacle standing in the way of Osborne’s plan – if it his is plan – to use the paper as a springboard back into the political big time. London, with its liberal bent and Remain majority, might be fertile ground for an English Macron or centrist renaissance.  But are those susceptible to the charms of an internationalist, centrist, liberal agenda really likely to be smitten with the architect of austerity?

Anne McElvoy’s profile of Macron inadvertently sums up Osborne’s predicament best. “His greatest risk,” it says of the likely next French president, “Is ending up looking like yet another member of the Davos-class elites after a rebranding exercise. Macron is on the march, but Macronism is still a mystery.”

Osborne hasn’t even bothered to rebrand. He has instead sought out the most sympathetic audience possible and is massaging its prejudices. The only conceivable direction of travel for those taken by his anti-Mayism – that is, if anyone is paying that much attention – is into the arms of the Lib Dems. For all his obvious sympathies with the much-diminished Orange Book wing of that party, it’s a questionable strategy as far as his own political sympathies are concerned. That is, unless, he’s planning to endorse them…