Last Thursday, I got the train down to London with a mate to attend a Spectator event in at Cadogan Hall in Belgravia. At the event, Andrew Neil quizzed George Osborne about the build up to the financial crisis of 2007/08 and its legacy, as well as the role Osborne himself played within events. Ultimately, Osborne had one clear message: that ‘being an international, open, free trading economy that welcomes immigrants and is pro-business and pro-market is good for this country’.
Free from the bonds of political obligation, it was interesting to see how Osborne, now an editor/professor/advisor, came across as a charismatic and even funny person. During his answers he frequently got laughs from the crowd who responded well to his calm and rational manner. Ultimately, the event gave an interesting insight into how the crash and the actions of politicians have shaped the political landscape today.
When pressed on the crash itself, Osborne was conciliatory to the decisions taken by the then prime minister Gordon Brown and the chancellor Alistair Darling during the initial stages of the crisis. He said that the Labour government did what was necessary in a tough situation, but that he did not think Britain was ‘particularly well prepared’.
“The legacy of the crash hung over his time in office”
Neil then suggested that the proposed Tory spending plans at the time had actually matched those set by Labour, refuting the idea that the Tories would be better prepared. In response, Osborne pointed out that the Tories had lost three elections and knew that to be competitive, they had to promise to spend more. However, once the implications of the crash became clear, their plans changed.
Next, Neil grilled Osborne on his record in government and the impact of austerity. Osborne highlighted that the budget deficit he inherited was projected to be 11.5% of GDP, far higher than when the UK had to be bailed out by the IMF in 1976. Osborne then drew a comparison to Britain’s position at the end of his period as chancellor when the ‘British economy outperformed the G7’ and was in a much more stable position. He also claimed that on balance, ‘Britain led the way’.
When Neil raised the issue of austerity fatigue, Osborne remained resolute and said, ‘You have to pay for what you spend…or you have to cut spending’. He made it clear that the legacy of the crash hung over his time in office, labelling it as ‘at least parallel to the Great Depression’. In his view, it was that shock to the economy combined with a technological revolution, that caused huge disruption to both politics and the economy.
“Osborne was scathing of Jeremy Corbyn”
Neil then raised the poignant issue of unfairness in society following the crash and asked whether Osborne thought that Brexit would have happened without the events of 2007/08, to which he replied, ‘I don’t know’. The former chancellor noted that there were many reasons that people voted for Brexit and that many beneficiaries from the inflated housing market had still voted for Brexit.
Conversation moved towards the issue of Trump, AfD, Marine Le Pen and an age of extremes. Moreover, Neil noted that there was no longer a moral case for capitalism amongst much of the youth following the crash. However, Osborne made it clear that he did not think that there was anything that could have been done differently to produce different outcomes.
“Osborne pointed out that he was ‘extremely lucky”
As the conversation turned towards Jeremy Corbyn, Osborne suggested that there are arguments that the Tories must ‘re-win’, and that it was his view that Corbyn and Brexit would make us poorer. He was scathing of the Labour leader as being ‘first a risk, and secondly incompetent’.
When asked about his own personal reflections on his time in politics, Osborne pointed out that he was ‘extremely lucky’ and that he could ‘look back broadly with pride’. Under pressure, he did not explicitly rule out a return to politics but did say that he wanted to focus on his role as the editor of The Evening Standard for now. After highlighting the electoral breakthrough the Tories had made in 2015, gaining half of the Indian-Asian vote and as much support from the gay community as Labour (something that would have been unthinkable decades ago), he offered some words of advice to his former colleagues.
Osborne claimed that if the Tories want to win, they need to provide a positive and progressive message and widen their support base, a goal that David Cameron had made progress towards.
“I had the luck to ask a question of Osborne”
After the initial talk had finished, there was a Q&A session in which I had the luck to ask a question of Osborne. I asked: ‘What is the best way to alter the position of London as the de facto place to do business and give policies like the Northern Powerhouse some teeth?’ Osborne replied that he was ‘very passionate about trying to increase economic activity in the north of England’ and that he was currently chairing a charity dedicated to that end. He also pointed out the vital necessity of devolution in helping spread economic prosperity.
Osborne referred to the elected mayors of Manchester and Liverpool as pioneering examples of progress, highlighting that Leeds would receive similar powers in the future. In his efforts to push for these reforms, he claimed that he had received internal criticism from within the Tory party that he was simply ‘handing over power to Labour’. However, he stressed that it was important to follow what he thought was the ‘right approach’.
“It is clear that we have not heard the last of George Osborne”
All in all, the former chancellor seemed relaxed and happy in his new role as an editor, and especially as a private citizen. Although his political career is apparently ended for the time being, it is clear that we have not heard the last of George Osborne.
Images courtesy of Ollie Knott