Leave it to Osborne
In Psmith, Journalist (1915), P.G. Wodehouse’s most enterprising character stumbles into the world of New York journalism and transforms a sleepy and sentimental family paper, Cosy Moments, into a campaigning publication. He sacks all the regular columnists and launches a crusade to improve the living conditions of tenement dwellers and unmask their anonymous landlord, despite threats encouraging him to stop: ‘Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!’ he declares.
Psmith masterminds the action, but recognises the limits of his practical experience. He persuades a frustrated sub-editor – a talented reporter who needed a steady job – to take over as editor, then offers him his services: ‘I happen to have a certain amount of leisure just now. It is at your disposal. I have had little experience of journalistic work, but I foresee that I shall be a quick learner. I will become your sub-editor, without salary.’
Or, as George Osborne, another confident amateur journalist with no previous experience recently wrote, ‘I have a lot to learn; but I have a great team to help me.’ There’s no sign, however, that the editor of the Evening Standard, with salary, has a newfound interest in improving the lives of ordinary Londoners, or is ready to risk upsetting the paper’s advertisers – dominated by property developers – by doing so.
Instead, Osborne’s Standard is on a vigorous crusade to undermine Theresa May. But what seemed like a slightly risqué endeavour before an election meant to deliver a massive Conservative majority is now an entirely trivial mission for the capital’s most prominent newspaper. Osborne has been compared to Iain Macleod, who was made editor of the Spectator in 1963 and spilled Conservative secrets, but the similarities end there. Osborne has no achievements to compare with overseeing the decolonisation of Africa (or winning the Gold Cup).
The former chancellor’s ever increasing roster of odd jobs – including hedge-fund adviser, after-dinner speaker and most recently honorary economics professor – will provide copy for rival editors for some time, but his role at the Standard is the most egregious. Since the paper dropped its cover price in 2009 – it’s now handed out for free – it has increasingly resembled a forum for adverts for luxury apartments, and articles about the benefits of gentrification for those doing the gentrifying.
The Standard was already a cheerleader for some of Osborne’s silliest pet projects when he was at the Treasury. Towards the end of last month there was a lament for the doomed Garden Bridge by Richard Rogers, and a regretful interview with Joanna Lumley who first thought of the terrible scheme. And while it pats itself on the back for its impressive fundraising efforts for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, the paper has long promoted an unenquiring vision of London that represents the city as a haven for a rich.
In Leave it to Psmith (1923), his last outing, Wodehouse’s one-time journalist is revealed as a member of the Senior Conservative Club. But it’s unlikely that the chancellor who inflicted austerity without end because he thought he could get away with it will have an epiphany like the one Psmith has in New York: ‘this tenement business was different … His lot had been cast in pleasant places, and the sight of actual raw misery had come home to him with an added force from that circumstance.’ Still, the list of Osborne’s jobs puts me in mind me of a fictional newspaper ad:
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!