The first impression that I get of George Osborne is that he is a man in a hurry – both literally and figuratively. After unforeseen traffic issues, what is meant to be a thorough half an hour interview before a talk at my college is reduced to a frantic ten minutes afterwards.
By the time Osborne and I sit down together he could be forgiven if he was sick of half-baked questions from undergraduates having just delivered a talk on many of the themes I ask him about, but to his great credit he is as lively and animated in the awkward format of a one on one interview as he is speaking to a packed auditorium.
Indeed, the genuine enthusiasm I sense is at first a surprise: a politician widely decried for being a creature of spin and artifice in the Blairite model is hardly supposed to seem as genuinely excited by the things he believes in as Osborne.
Naturally the first question I ask him is where he thinks that both the country and the party that he has dedicated so much of his life to are heading. A few days before our interview Osborne said that he felt that “the Conservative party has to confront the truth. It needs a new leader, a new agenda, it needs to win over supporters who have disappeared and make an appeal to urban, metropolitan Britain that has turned its back on the Conservatives”, and I ask him if he thinks that a kind of socially liberal, deeply metropolitan – perhaps even cosmopolitan – conservatism is what he sees as Britain’s future.
“Yeah,” he replies, “I think that the Conservative Party wins when it goes beyond its comfort zone and reaches out to more urban, metropolitan voters, to younger voters, to people from different ethnic minorities, and that’s what it’s done when it’s won elections, and when it doesn’t do that it loses elections.
“I’d give the same advice to the Labour Party which is reach out beyond its natural base, for example win over the support of people who run businesses and the like. I think a good test in politics is do you understand why people don’t vote for you, and in my experience, being a politician, if you don’t understand why people don’t vote for you you’re never going be in office.
“You know, you need to try and appreciate opinions on the other side of the fence.”
I ask him if these ideas are really best expressed by the Conservative Party, or whether what we might call “Osbornism” might be better off in a new centrist party – whether that’s Change UK or not – just as similar ideas flourished in Emmanuel Macron’s new En Marche! party.
“Well, the British system is quite difficult, in the parliamentary system its quite difficult to have a new party,” he says hesitantly, “but if ever there was a time for it, it’s probably now, because both parties are moving away from the centre and creating a vacuum, but maybe that doesn’t require a new party – maybe the Liberal Democrats are showing that they can fill that space.”
“It’s still easier to try and seize control of the direction and leadership of one of the main parties, it’s easier rather than creating a centre-left, moderate, social democrat party to try and get back control of the Labour leadership from the Hard left, and change it.
“Similarly, with the Conservatives, it’s easier to get control of the Conservative leadership, and take the party back to a more liberal, cosmopolitan, pro-business position, than go with the kind of hard right, hard Brexit right. So that’s still the easier route than creating a brand-new force: Emmanuel Macron could do that in France, but in France the electoral system made it a little bit easier for him to do that, even if it is a big achievement.”
I press him on this point, and ask if there might be circumstances in which he might switch his support to such a party: his reply is surprisingly candid, for a politician.
“Well, I think I’m still going to fight for getting the Conservative Party in the right direction, and as someone who gave my life to Conservative politics I don’t want to abandon that. That doesn’t mean that my newspaper which I edit might not take a different view.
“And I have a responsibility to the readers of that news- paper, so I would distinguish there. As I say before we move on, and before you give up on the Conservative Party, as someone who was one of its MPs, I would fight for its future.” An intriguing comment at the time, these remarks now seem like a hint at things to come: two days before the European Elections The Evening Standard tacitly endorsed the Liberal Democrats.
At the time, however, I didn’t have time to press him on this before we hurtled towards Osborne’s pet project, the Northern Powerhouse. When I ask him why he thinks the project never took off in quite the way it was pitched Osborne almost bristles, and he replies sternly that: “Well I think it is taking off, I announced it four years ago, and in that space we’ve, out of nowhere, created elected mayors in Greater Manchester, in Merseyside, in Teeside, and South Yorkshire.
“We’ve got really ambitious projects that didn’t exist before for train connections between these cities, we’ve got new science facilities going up, so lots has happened in the last few years.
“But turning around a hundred years of economic history is hard to do, and it can’t be done overnight.
“And although I think the government aren’t giving it as much support as they should, the local communities, the different cities, the different towns, have really embraced it, and are working together.
“The basic idea is not just ‘the North is great’, and I say that as someone who was an MP in the North for many years, its that the North could be stronger if the different cities of the North worked more closely together.”
This seems to be the centre of Osborne’s vision for Britain: interconnected, metropolitan, focused on building great cities where people can do great things. He seeks a Britain where high-speed trains rush across the landscape and we all become homogenised into a vision of a world which looks all too coincidentally like London. But I’m not sure that’s actual what people in the North of England want. From my own experience growing up near Preston, Osborne could politely be described as less than popular.
I ask him if, in light of electoral victories like the Copeland by-election and a brief surge of support before her campaign’s fatal crash, it is disappointing that Theresa May’s conservatism seems more popular than his. His answer is at once incisive and insightful, and I’ll readily admit that he somewhat sways me from the popular narrative.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” he says, “if you take Cheshire where I was an MP, we lost half of the Tory seats in Cheshire under Theresa May, and we went backwards in Lancashire and elsewhere, so it’s true that we picked up a couple of places like Middlesbrough, so I’m not saying it’s all in one direction, but generally we’ve gone backwards and will continue to go backwards until we can be that national party.
“And by the way if we cancel projects like HS2, which is the biggest single investment in the North of England in its modern history, that will be a betrayal of the North, and will be seen rightly so as that.”
Moving on again I ask Osborne how he thinks Oxford has changed since his student days. The speech he gave before the interview indicates that it may not have changed that much. In his talk he mentioned two professors I’d seen the same day who had taught him, and referenced the same silly student rumours about certain tutors recruiting for MI6 that are still passed around by furtive Magdalen freshers to this day.
“I like to think that the success of places like Oxford is that they retain their deep roots in history, but they change and modernise as well, and we’re in a set of buildings which didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate here at Magdalen.
“I think there’s something precious about a culture built up over centuries that you don’t want to jettison.
“So I’m all for Oxford changing and embracing and expanding the people who can get places here, but don’t throw away what I would say is the culture of excellence, and interest, and a belief in the value of academic study for its own right.
“I think if you lose those things that’ll be a sad end to the story.”
Somewhat unusually for a major British politician Osborne himself did not play a very large role in student politics (although he was editor of The ISIS), and I ask him if he thinks it really matters all that much.
“Well look, there’s two things: one is it’s just a fact, and maybe it’ll change, but many of the people who start their life out as student politicians and in the Union here will end up being national politicians.
“You look at the cabinet today and there were people who were Presidents of the Oxford and Cambridge Union and at other universities debating societies and student unions, so that’s one thing.
“Second, it can be a kind of taste of things to come, student politics, as I was saying when I was here one of the reasons I was put off politics here was because Conservative politics was very Eurosceptic, campaigning for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, which feels like ancient history, but of course both the individuals then, and the subject came back and dominated politics for thirty years, and I think that it was, in that way, ahead of its time, though not in a very positive way.”
It’s amusing to think that the same dramas that played out in OUCA when Osborne was a student are those wrack- ing the Conservative Party today, but I can’t help but think that politics – in both its national and student guises – has changed considerably since Osborne was at Oxford. Even just five years ago, as I note to him, the country’s three most prominent Tories (himself, David Cameron, and Boris Johnson) were all members of the Bullingdon Club, an organisation that even OUCA has now seen fit to ban its members from joining.
He laughs at the mention of the Bullingdon Club, and remarks, “Well, I think first of all society moves on, I guess. I think its okay for students to have a good time as long as they don’t do it in a way that’s offensive and disruptive to others, and I think you don’t want your university to be so serious that people can’t enjoy themselves.”
That’s a somewhat rose-tinted understanding of a dining club famous for its “loutish” behaviour, and his response is the same rehearsed line he and Cameron have repeated for most of their political careers, but he can hardly be blamed for wanting to distance himself from a club which seems grossly out of touch with his own vision of a meritocratic Britain.
He continues: “I think one place where Oxford – and this is true of other big universities in Britain – they should try to feed in a little bit more; they can feel like they’re a bit cut off from the rest of the country.
“So I teach at Stanford University in California, and I’m going to be there in a couple of days’ time, and you really feel on the campus that this is a place completely connected with the latest developments in artificial intelligence, they’re thinking about how you regulate social media companies, big decisions on the future of China.
“And a lot of academics there come in and out of not just the US government but other governments, and I always felt that the British universities could perhaps do more to really plug into national life.
“I’m not so much talking about the undergraduates here, I’m talking about the professors, the academics, and the post-grads, and not be afraid to say: ‘well I think the country can be run better, and here’s how to do it’, because you know, if ever it was needed it was needed now.”
This, again, gives us a glimpse of the technocratic kind of liberalism Osborne wants to usher in, but it’s not lines like these which are most revealing, but rather one throwaway comment during his speech.
Pausing for a moment when asked how he felt about the somewhat ignominious end to his career as Chancellor and Tory heir apparent, he says “Well, as they say, all political careers… end”.
And it’s that fumbling over Enoch Powell’s old quip (that all political careers end in failure for those that don’t know) that cuts to the heart of the matter: this is a man who doesn’t believe his political career has to end in failure and, I think, doesn’t believe its ended quite yet.