Q&A: George Osborne on Theresa May, a Softer Brexit and Trump’s Visit

9 minute read

Until the summer of 2016, George Osborne was one of the British government’s most powerful people. Now, he is one of its most outspoken critics.

The 46-year-old was the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, from 2010 to 2016, and had been tipped to eventually succeed his good friend David Cameron as Prime Minister. But after the country voted to leave the European Union on June 23 last year both men left office, after failing to convince the country to remain within the bloc. While Cameron quit to write his memoirs, Osborne was sacked by new Prime Minister Theresa May in one of her first acts in charge.

Osborne has since left politics, and surprised the political establishment in March by becoming editor of the Evening Standard, London’s influential daily newspaper, alongside other lucrative jobs including a £650,000 ($840,000) part-time role with New York fund management giant Blackrock. From his new position on Fleet Street, he has overseen a series of excoriating editorials criticizing May’s leadership of the country and her governing Conservative Party.

Ahead of British politicians’ return to Parliament from their summer vacation this week, Osborne sat down with TIME in his airy office at the Standard’s West London base. In an edited transcript of the conversation, the former Chancellor argues May won’t be allowed to keep her promise to stay on until the next general election, explains that stalled Brexit negotiations have proved it was a lie to think “the E.U. needs us more than we need them”, and questions why President Donald Trump has visited Germany, France and Poland but has so far snubbed the U.K.

How have you found the change from politician to journalist?

I’m really enjoying my life at the moment, because I made this big decision to not spend the rest of my years just trading off being Chancellor of the Exchequer and talking about what I’ve done in my late 30s and early 40s. The opportunity to edit one of the great British papers came along and I’ve enjoyed every day of it so far.

The Prime Minister insists she will fight the next election, despite only squeaking back to Downing Street in June. Do you think she’ll be allowed to do it?

She allowed an impression to develop that she was going to go. Now she appears to be saying she’s going to stay and that’s the unsustainable bit.

I don’t think she can lead the Conservatives into the next election, because I don’t think the Conservatives will have her. So at some point there needs to be a change, but it partly depends on whether the potential alternatives want to make a move. Being a politician and now a journalist I think sometimes there’s a pseudo-science applied to politics. But politics is more of an art than a science … It’s an inherently unstable situation, but it’s also an inherently unpredictable situation, so we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m fairly sure of where it’s going to end up, but [I’m not sure] how we get there.

Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran hard left leader of the opposition Labour Party, surpassed expectations in June’s election and May’s approval ratings have since slumped. What are the odds of him entering No 10 in the next few years?

British politics in one sense is quite competitive at the moment, because the last election was close. The Conservative government only has to lose a few seats in Parliament and you’d have a Labour-led coalition. Jeremy Corbyn is eminently beatable because I don’t think the country wants a hard-left Government, but the Conservatives have got to provide a compelling alternative and they’ve got to do much more work to get back into the support amongst younger voters, urban voters, graduates, better educated voters, ethnic minorities.

A lot of the work that was done [by Conservatives] in recent years is at risk of being undone. As someone who has spent their life as a Conservative and is still a Conservative Party member, I care about that and I want to make sure that the Conservative Party is in good shape to offer a compelling alternative.

Some believe the U.K. might ultimately remain a member of the E.U, partly because the negotiations will prove too complicated and fraught. Do you think that’s possible?

Britain is leaving the European Union. I don’t think it’s the right course for the country, but I don’t see any prospect at the moment of it being reversed. I think the referendum result holds, but Britain is not ready to simply depart in the spring of 2019, so it needs a transition deal in which basically we will sign up to a lot of the obligations of the European Union without any longer having a seat at the table to determine what those obligations are.

There was initially talk that Britain could just walk away from the E.U. with no trade deal in place. Now there’s a move towards transitional arrangements for two or more years after Britain’s membership ends in 2019, so as to minimize any economic shocks. What sort of deal will Britain get on that?

We can’t afford in 2019 just to leave. The idea that a bad deal is better than no deal has, I think, exploded as a position because it is clear that everything from customs computers to the ability to make payments to British farmers won’t be in place for April 2019. Britain needs some kind of transition and the transition will include sustaining those trade arrangements.

The European Union knows we need that transition. It’s going to be quite a tough negotiation for the UK and we’re going to end up having to pay quite a price for that transition. The central fallacy was to believe that they needed us more than we needed them.

By price, you presumably mean the ‘divorce bill’, or the financial obligations the E.U. believes the U.K. have upon leaving. The E.U. wants this figure agreed by October. Is this possible?

I don’t think it will be agreed by October, no. But we’ve gone a long way from the Brexiteers saying we’ll get £350m a week back [as a result of leaving] to accepting we’re going to end up paying billions of pounds to leave the E.U.

Parliament’s time is now almost fully taken up by Brexit. What’s the political damage of that?

There’s an opportunity cost. Clearly, there are lots of things we should have been getting on with as a country to make ourselves more productive, to adjust to a world of rapidly changing technology, to make sure that Britain is at the center of a new networked world. All of that is essentially on ice because we’ve got to get this Brexit negotiation right. At the very least, it’s consuming an awful lot of energy.

Do you think the U.K. will have plenty of bilateral trade deals ready to sign by the time of Brexit, with the U.S. for example?

Trade deals take a long time to negotiate, which is why I don’t think there’s any prospect of an immediate trade deal with the United States or anyone. What you’ve already seen emerging from the Prime Minister’s trip to Japan [in August] is that Britain may get trade arrangements that closely mirror existing E.U. trade arrangements, but that somewhat begs the question of why we’re leaving.

What was promised [by the Brexit campaigners] was that we could negotiate special trade arrangements that were not available to the E.U. because it was too protectionist. If we end up just copying E.U. trade arrangements that might prevent a disruption to trade, that doesn’t really satisfy the Brexiteer claim that we were going to have all new trade deals with the U.S. or anyone else.

But shouldn’t a deal with the U.S. prove straightforward? President Trump has repeatedly promised the U.K. will be at “the front of the queue’ for a deal.

Once you get into a trade negotiation you’re going to find all these issues coming up, like do we allow chlorinated chicken or genetically modified foods? Or do we allow U.S. companies to bid for public sector contracts in the National Health Service, for example. Those are all issues that are going to come up in trade negotiations. Unlike in the past, where all these things were handled at the European level and all the U.K. had to do was say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to the deal done between the E.U. and Canada or the E.U. and Korea, these trade deals are going to be scrutinized in the House of Commons in a Parliament where the Government doesn’t have a majority and where even the Cabinet at don’t agree on some elements of it. I just think it’s going to end up being a lot trickier than has been claimed.

The government has promised President Trump the rare honor of a state visit, but it has been postponed indefinitely. Given his rhetoric has angered many Britons, should a formal visit still go ahead?

The government was caught out promising a state visit and then being unable to deliver it… They haven’t really explained why Donald Trump’s been able to make it to Germany, France, and Poland but hasn’t made it to Britain. The country’s got to have a relationship with the United States, with the U.S. administration, with the president of the United States, so I assume he’ll be visit at some point. [But] I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon.

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Write to Mark Leftly at mleftly@yahoo.co.uk