It is not often that an ex-Tory Chancellor gets compared by a former Cabinet colleague to Gordon Gekko. But that was how Iain Duncan Smith reportedly described George Osborne taking a sixth well-paid job last week, after putting himself forward to be editor of the Evening Standard.
I suspect that Wall Street was among the ambitious (and highly personable, I should add) young Osborne’s favourite films when growing up. He has collected jobs in the past year since being sacked like Gekko collected companies.
It’s worth remembering that Gekko’s downfall resulted not so much from greed, but from trying, like a modern Faust, to corrupt his protégé, the young stockbroker Bud Fox – who finally saw the light and realised how decadent and empty Gekko was. As Bud’s former boss Lou Mannheim reminds him: “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”
This may turn out to be true for Osborne. We have heard a lot about “conflicts of interest”, but what I believe he hasn’t thought through is the effect that taking six jobs will do in terms of conflicting himself. Taking on too much never makes anybody happy. Yes, I am aware of the saying “if you want something done give it to the busiest person you know”. But I disagree. In my experience, male multitasking leads to disappointment and failure as it slowly dawns on you that you have taken on too much.
This inability to truly succeed at any one thing slowly eats at you. The Catholic film director and critic Eric Rohmer, who studied theology, came up with the following line in his film Full Moon in Paris: “The one who has two wives loses his soul, the one who has two houses loses his mind.”
Osborne was handed the £200,000-plus job (editing just four days a week) despite having no experience of office journalism other than editing The Isis at Oxford (where he published articles on poker and the Marquis de Sade) and freelancing for the Telegraph’s Peterborough column after leaving university. He applied for a place as a graduate trainee on the Times but failed to be chosen. Osborne says he wants to remain an influence in “public life” and to hold the Government to account. But surely this is what the opposition parties should be doing, not an elected Tory MP.
His new editor’s role has certainly set the parliamentary agenda this week – but probably not in the way he intended. It’s useful for MPs to be able to earn extra income from other jobs: it means we don’t have an elected chamber of career politicians whose only “jobs” have been at Conservative Central Office or Labour HQ. But this income is now under review by the parliamentary committee on standards.
This is going to make Osborne very unpopular indeed among fellow MPs, many of whom already think that his decision to take six jobs undermines the moral responsibilities that all MPs accept when they first take their oath. The word in the Commons is that the Standard job is the final straw, as the advisory committee on business appointments was reportedly given little notice of his new role.
A flavour of what may be to come in terms of condemnation is contained in a letter to the Times on Monday by Sir Gordon Downey, a former parliamentary commissioner for standards. He makes the point that, as a former Chancellor, Osborne “is privy to all the secrets of Whitehall and Westminster” and one expects that, as a former first secretary of state and privy councillor, “he will respect the convention of not exposing confidential knowledge”.
Sir Gordon says that, in attempting to be both the editor of a major newspaper and a high-profile parliamentarian, Osborne has taken a step “too far”. Having spoken to MPs, I think it is unlikely he will be able to do both jobs.
While I never expect to earn anything like Osborne, I can take some small satisfaction that I did at least win a place on the Times graduate trainee scheme. I worked in Wapping for Rupert Murdoch in 1990 – two years after he had launched Sky – and can clearly recall the mood of financial stress as Murdoch pumped endless money into his new venture that struggled at first to find its feet. Now, of course, it is a huge success story, thanks to Murdoch’s brave vision.
I think the regulators must give the Murdoch family the green light to buy the controlling stake. Murdoch has bid nearly £12 billion for Sky. This is because the UK’s broadcasting media is currently biased in favour of a BBC-style liberal metropolitan agenda. Sky is little better. However, if Murdoch takes control, he may try to make Sky possibly more centrist and popular. Due to UK broadcasting regulations, which require impartial, unbiased coverage, Sky would never be able to become like Fox News in America. But at least it would give UK broadcasting media a much-needed “correcting” voice and more plurality. We currently have a complete imbalance between broadcast media, which is a liberal monopoly, and print media, which is genuinely plural with newspapers and magazines offering both right and left political views.
Time for change.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s. Axe Yard is a new column on faith and politics
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