George Osborne, the former chancellor and new editor of the London Evening Standard, has been told by a key parliamentary body that he can't have any conversations with the government about press regulation, because of his recent role as a senior cabinet minister.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments released advice on Tuesday – just as Osborne began his first day as editor at the paper – criticising him for accepting the job without waiting for its official advice.
ACOBA advises former ministers on their employment for two years after they leave office. It said in its letter that Osborne sought ACOBA's advice on 13 March, but that he was then announced as the paper's new editor just one week later, before the committee had formally responded.
In a statement to the media, Osborne said he was still seeking ACOBA's approval before formally taking the job.
"However the Committee is very concerned that despite the press statement noting you were still seeking the Committee’s advice, you subsequently signed a contract of employment with the Evening Standard on 20 March – without having received the Committee’s advice. It was not appropriate for you to do so," ACOBA said.
The committee also advised that Osborne's appointment should be allowed only if he does not disclose any privileged information from his time as a minister, and added that his contract should be amended to make this a condition of employment. The report said Osborne has indicated he will do this.
The letter, written by Baroness Browning, a former deputy chair of the Conservative party, concluded that ACOBA could find no conflicts of interest arising from Osborne's time at the Treasury and his current editor role. Donations the Treasury made to charity appeals backed by the Standard, paid for the proceeds of LIBOR banking fines, were the result of an application process.
The letter also notes that the former chancellor's knowledge of the inner workings of government could "provide some advantage to the Evening Standard," but added: "However, the
Committee notes that nine months have passed since you left Government and the
value of privileged information you had access to in Government will have decreased over this time."
The role of ACOBA has been openly questioned by some politicians, however, with the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) last week calling it a "toothless regulator" that needs reforming.
In a report released last week, PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin MP said: "The culture has become established in public life, that individuals are entitled to capitalise on their public sector experience when they move into the private sector without clear boundaries. This is the 'new normal', and public confidence in the effectiveness of ACoBA's advice to former Ministers and civil servants will continue to diminish further."
Meanwhile, the first front page of Osborne's tenure as editor led with a report on senior European politician Guy Verhofstadt mocking prime minister Theresa May's well-worn "strong and stable" election slogan. In the paper's leader column on Tuesday, Brexit is branded "an historic mistake".
Osborne was greeted by a gaggle of protesters outside the Standard's offices at Northcliffe House in Kensington, west London, including some taxi drivers angry at the growth of unlicensed private car hire companies such as Uber.
The Evening Standard declined to comment.
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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