Outside of parliament, George Osborne has been an excoriating critic of Jeremy Corbyn and “hard Brexit”. When the Evening Standard editor returned to Westminster for a Press Gallery lunch, I asked him which he believed would be worse for the UK: a Corbyn government or hard Brexit?
Osborne replied: “I’m a Conservative voter and I am hopeful that, long before we get to the general election, a Conservative government will be advocating a softer form of Brexit. I used to be a bit of an amateur chief whip and I don’t think they’ve got the votes.”
It’s striking, then, that Osborne didn’t simply state that a Corbyn government would always be worse. But his faith that a “hard Brexit” (defined as UK withdrawal from the single market and the customs union) can be avoided depends on Tory Remainers showing greater bravery than they have to date (Theresa May has yet to lose a Brexit-related vote). Though the majority of MPs (and Conservatives) voted Remain, most currently maintain that the Leave vote can only be respected by leaving the single market and ending free movement.
The former Chancellor also said of his party: “If we present ourselves to the country as anti-modern, anti-immigrant, anti-urban, anti-metropolitan, then huge sections of the country will be anti-us. We saw that frankly at the last general election and we may see it in the London elections in a few months’ time. Change in a progressive country is constant, and it’s pointless resisting it.”
And he argued of Labour: “For all his undoubted ability to connect to younger and more disillusioned voters, Jeremy Corbyn has become the biggest obstacle to Labour winning a general election. If the party was led by a more moderate social democrat of even middling ability, they would be 20 points ahead in the polls and on the cusp of power. Instead the Labour movement is consumed by an internal battle for its soul.”
Osborne also refused to rule out a return to parliament or a London mayoral bid. Finally, when asked if he regretted remarking that he would not rest until May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer”, he quipped that “it’s taught me a few things about editorial conference meetings.”