LONDON (Reuters) - George Osborne, who lost his job as Britain’s finance minister last year after helping lead the doomed campaign to stay in the European Union, was given a high profile platform on Friday as the editor of London’s main metropolitan daily paper.
The announcement that Osborne will edit the London Evening Standard despite virtually no journalism experience astonished his fellow politicians, and gives a tribune to a rival of Prime Minister Theresa May within her Conservative Party.
He is one of the leading Conservative opponents of exiting the European Union, fired unceremoniously by May as one of her first acts after taking power following the referendum last June.
“I am proud to have an editor of such substance,” said the Standard’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev, adding that Osborne’s socially liberal and economically pragmatic political views matched those of the paper’s readers in London.
Unlike the other major British newspapers, morning papers sold nationally, the Standard is distributed exclusively in London, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.
Its 900,000 copies are distributed free in train stations and are ubiquitous among homebound commuters, making it influential with the capital’s elites in media, the arts, business and politics.
Osborne, now 45, became Britain’s youngest chancellor of the exchequer for more than a century when the Conservatives took power in 2010.
As the country’s second most powerful politician under then Prime Minister David Cameron, he was the architect of Cameron’s “austerity” policy of spending cuts to tame historically large budget deficits in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
He was widely tipped to succeed Cameron, until last year’s Brexit fiasco, when Cameron called the referendum on EU membership, campaigned to stay in, lost the vote and quit.
Osborne, who had privately had warned Cameron that the referendum was a mistake, campaigned hard to stay in the EU, warning of devastating financial repercussions if Britain left. His opponents accused him of scaremongering.
Since Cameron left politics, Osborne has become the leading figure from the former cabinet still serving as a member of parliament (MP) on the “back bench” of Conservatives excluded from May’s government. He has occasionally criticised some of her rightwing initiatives, such as promoting schools that select pupils based on academic ability.
“I am proud to be a Conservative MP, but as editor and leader of a team of dedicated and independent journalists, our only interest will be to give a voice to all Londoners,” Osborne, 45, said in a statement.
“We will be a fearless paper,” said Osborne,
The appointment is a coup for Lebedev, 36, who became a newspaper baron when his father Alexander, a former KGB spy turned Russian tycoon, bought the Standard and the Independent, a national paper now distributed online. The younger Lebedev said Osborne would bolster the Standard’s influence.
Rival politicians and journalists questioned how Osborne could remain an effective lawmaker with such a big job. He already has a part time job with a salary of 650,000 pounds a year for working just 48 days at asset manager BlackRock, and earned hundreds of thousands of pounds giving speeches.
“It’s taking multitasking to an extreme level - what a joke,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour lawmaker John Mann told the BBC that Osborne should quit parliament because he was not giving value to the taxpayer. The basic salary for MPs is 74,962 pounds.
Osborne will edit the newspaper in the morning before going to work in parliament in the afternoon, where he represents the Tatton constituency, a wealthy area near the northern city of Manchester. His salary as editor was not announced.
Journalism veterans mocked his inexperience in their trade.
“When made Editor of The Sunday Times I was criticised because I hadn’t been an editor. Mr Osborne hasn’t even been a journalist,” said Andrew Neil, who edited The Sunday Times for 11 years.
While at the University of Oxford, Osborne dabbled in student journalism and was proud enough of his efforts to display the two issues of the magazine he edited in his Downing Street flat while chancellor.
His student editing included stories on gambling, an essay on cannabis published on hemp paper, and a story he wrote himself on recruitment to Britain’s MI5 security service.
After university, Osborne tried but failed to get a place on The Times graduate scheme, though he wrote occasional pieces as a freelancer before entering politics. When asked once what his dream job would be outside politics, he said: war correspondent.
($1 = 0.8087 pounds)
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff