On his appointment in May 2010, Mr. Osborne was the youngest Chancellor since 1886, and the third youngest in history. He presented eight budgets, the most of any Conservative Chancellor. Prior to that he was elected in 2001 as the youngest Conservative MP, ran David Cameron’s successful campaign to become Leader of the Conservative Party and helped negotiate the formation of Britain’s first Coalition Government since the Second World War.
Today, Mr. Osborne is Editor of London’s Evening Standard, one of Britain’s largest circulation newspapers, a post he has held since 2017. He is also a senior adviser to the BlackRock Investment Institute. He chairs the Partners Council of EXOR, the holding company for firms like Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari and the Economist Magazine. He is a visiting professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he teaches a course in decision making – and he is a fellow of the Hoover Institute. He has a Masters Degree from Oxford University in Modern History. He was interviewed for the Review by Philip Delves Broughton, a Senior Consultant to Brunswick, former New York and Paris Bureau Chief for the Daily Telegraph and the author of best-selling books.
How is it running a daily newspaper these days?
This pandemic is the biggest story of our lifetimes and there is an enormous amount of public interest in getting authoritative facts and analysis. But there’s also the real business challenge of the precipitous fall in advertising revenues. It’s both a great opportunity and a big challenge.
We’ve responded in two ways. First, we’ve had to reduce costs. We’ve put some of our staff on a furlough scheme, and we’re making sure we’re as efficient as we possibly can be.
Second, we have reshaped the newspaper to cover the COVID-19 crisis and dramatically changed the distribution. We used to hand out copies at Tube stations but people aren’t using the Tube. Now we’ve switched to hand delivering copies of the newspaper to homes across London. We’re also seeing traffic up on the online platform. This is just accelerating the merging of our print and digital operations.
What do you imagine it’s like in Downing Street?
Downing Street is a very small building. Even though you’re part of a broad network of the state with thousands of people working in departments and different arms of the government, ultimately the decision making comes down to a very few people in that very small building.
There will be intense pressure on the political and official leadership. And they’ve got the additional human toll, which I never had, of infection and self-isolation.
What’s the government’s biggest communication challenge?
Trying to get the balance between reassuring people that you have a plan and a path through, whilst at the same time not giving false hope and promising things that can’t be delivered. Governments get themselves into all sorts of trouble when they over-promise and under-deliver. At the moment [April, 2020], I would be erring on the side of caution, explaining to people what we don’t know as well as what we do, and not promising either timelines that can’t be delivered or exit strategies that don’t exist or help that is not about to imminently arrive.
Who really makes the decisions at times like this?
In any organization, and government is no different, it’s always three or four individuals right at the center who are making the biggest contribution to steering through a crisis.
In a democracy, you can’t avoid the head of government—the central decision maker. One thing I was constantly reminded of in government was that every one of the most difficult decisions is elevated to the Prime Minister. If they were easy decisions, by their very nature, they wouldn’t have reached the Prime Minister’s table. Some of the burden can be shared by people like the Chancellor, but essentially the PM is left with the hardest calls.
Usually there’s also the head of the civil service. The late Jeremy Heywood in the UK was the outstanding example of this.
Obviously in this kind of crisis, you’re also relying on your public health officials, your chief scientific advisors, who usually wouldn’t have anything like this kind of access to the PM. In ordinary times, they might see the Prime Minister once or twice a year.
A big challenge for government is that you can’t be entirely led by the science. Scientists are making a very important judgment, which is how you tackle the disease. But politicians and officials have to balance that with other judgments like what is sustainable for the economy, or acceptable to society. You could imagine a piece of scientific advice which would be to let the elderly and the sick die so you can concentrate your resources on the young. But no civilized society could make that judgment.
Expert opinion should certainly inform any decision, but ultimately the political leaders in a democracy are balancing various judgments, and the group helping them with this is very small.