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Does Osborne's Evening Standard Need To Reflect London's New Politics?

09/06/2017 11:50
PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images

George Osborne's London Evening Standard has had a good war.

The new boy's leader columns have been eagerly read for his attacks on his nemesis, Theresa May, before the paper finally announced its full-throated opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. With hindsight his first column looks prophetic, lambasting May's campaign as amounting "to no more than a slogan", branding Brexit a "historic mistake" and warning of "tough days ahead as reality bites".

Now pollsters' predictions of a Conservative landslide have been confounded and it is Labour that is resurgent in London.

Team Corbyn took the key Tory marginals of Battersea, Croydon Central and Enfield Southgate. While the Liberal Democrats also managed to win seats including in Twickenham for the veteran campaigner, Sir Vince Cable. This all presents Osborne with a dilemma. Can the Standard continue its editorial strategy of support for the Tories in the face of the commercial reality of selling advertising in an increasingly Labour city?

London has always been a split city politically. The inner city traditionally returns Labour MPs and borough councils, the outer suburbs tend to be richer and Conservative. The balance between the two has meant the Mayoralty has changed hands regularly.

The Evening Standard has tended to be politically right of centre although this hasn't stopped it from supporting Labour at times, especially under Tony Blair. The worst thing, though, is for a newspaper to find itself on the wrong side of its readers' political opinions.

That is exactly what happened to the Standard under the Noughties editor Veronica Wadley, when its vehement opposition to Ken Livingstone's mayoralty led to readers complaining of negativity and accusations of talking the capital down.

When Wadley was eventually replaced by Geordie Grieg, he launched a high profile ad campaign apologising for the paper's behaviour. So, there are big risks for Osborne as he considers the paper's editorial strategy. But there are also big potential benefits too.

Osborne's public image as the Chancellor responsible for cruel austerity cuts, belies his private political philosophy of liberal Conservatism with a populist touch. In government, he played the bad cop to David Cameron's good cop. But he is a more nuanced character than the caricatures suggest. I expect that hinterland to inform his editorial choices.

He can continue to attack lame duck Prime Minister Theresa May, who surely can never lead the Conservatives into another General Election campaign. He can also position the paper as a source of liberal news and comment, more in tune with the leftwards direction of the capital's political scene.

That's vital to help reach younger readers who've not only backed Jeremy Corbyn but also distrust mainstream media and seek out news on social media. And George Osborne is not a man who lacks ambition.

If he sustains the Evening Standard intellectually, editorially and commercially, he will be a natural choice in the future to edit one of the big national right-wing papers, The Mail, Daily Telegraph or The Times. But as Osborne puts today's edition of the Evening Standard to bed and Theresa May tries to repair her fractured government, he must surely reflect that had he stayed in Parliament the leadership of the Conservative Party and the country could have been his for the taking.

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