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Notebook

I'm not Chancellor, so I don't have 2,056 cards to sign. What do I do now?

Also in George Osborne’s Notebook: why I’ve made up with Brexit foes; my bar-room chat with Ivanka Trump

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

One thing I won’t miss about No. 11 Downing Street are the Christmas cards: 2,056 Christmas cards to be exact. That was the number I had to sign every year. The recipients included 87 FTSE chief executives, 209 foreign dignitaries, six EU commissioners and one shadow chancellor. They all added up, and it involved several days of signing, and sore wrists. Every chancellor, prime minister and opposition leader I’ve known does the same. Judging by the thousands of cards I would receive, many must go unread. So I propose to my successors a Christmas truce. Only send cards to people you actually know. Give the money you save to a good charity and use your time more productively to, for example, run the country.

Speaking of truces, I’ve decided that there’s no point bearing grudges about the referendum campaign and its aftermath. Life is too short for lifelong feuds. So I’ve made up with the friends of mine who were on the Brexit side of the argument. I also agreed to present The Spectator’s Parliamentary Awards to the year’s political victors. Readers, I don’t know where they get the money from, but this magazine knows how to put on a good party. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the actual awards that I handed out were a little diminished. When I won Politician of the Year some time ago, I was presented with a fine engraved glass fruit bowl with a silver edge. All Theresa May received from me was a certificate. Like Marmite and Toblerone, is this another hidden cost of Brexit?


An unexpected silver lining to leaving government is that I have a much nicer parliamentary office. The Chancellor’s traditional room in the House of Commons is rather dank and gloomy, with peeling ceiling plaster. Despite repeated efforts by pest control, it is overrun with moths. As a backbencher, my new office is, by contrast, a large, bright room overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. The office used to belong to David Davis, who was — rather reluctantly, I understand — forced to vacate it on entering government. So far I have resisted the jovial advice from various fellow MPs to have my new room swept to make sure it is free of bugs of a different kind.

My office sits on a corner of Portcullis House, which some have taken to calling the Naughty Corner. I presume this is because my friend Michael Gove has moved in two doors away, although my immediate neighbour Mark Field joined the club when his assistant inadvertently revealed the government’s secret plans for Brexit. My other neighbour is Sir Simon Burns MP. Simon is universally liked in the Conservative party and utterly detested by Speaker Bercow — two facts that are not unconnected. Simon is, in fact, a Democratic Congressman pretending to be a British MP. His office walls are decorated solely with the campaign posters of Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton. I had a £50 bet with him in the summer that Hillary would lose to Trump. I saw too many similarities with the Brexit campaign. A week after the election, a doleful and depressed Simon handed me an envelope. Inside were my winnings, and a card. It read: ‘You won; the world lost.’

I’ve never met Donald Trump, but I have come across his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared. I met them this summer at a media conference in Aspen organised by the great US network anchor and renaissance man Charlie Rose. It’s fair to say the event was not stuffed with Trump supporters, and there were a few crass barbs aimed at Ivanka. But she and her husband handled it all with great dignity. On the first night, I was heading up to my hotel room when I saw the two of them having a drink at the bar alone, and they asked me to join them. They were a serious, intelligent and modest couple. The first TV debate was just days away and I asked them what Donald was doing to prepare for it. They told me he was doing nothing. He had dismissed all attempts of theirs to coach or advise him, because her father thought that the public would see he was scripted and his appeal was precisely that he wasn’t. I realised then that the political rules I grew up with were being rewritten. In 2017, Britain, and the rest of the world, will have to get used to the unscripted President.

It is also the year when I am planning to write my first book. I didn’t want to write a political memoir — I’m not a huge fan of them because, by their very nature, they are backward-looking and can tip into self-justification. Too many of them are just boring. I’m not that interested in what I said to Nick Clegg or Boris Johnson in 2013, and I don’t see why anyone else should be. So I’ve decided on the more unpredictable course of writing a book about the present and the future. It’s to be called The Age of Unreason, and it will be my attempt to understand why populist nationalism is on the rise in our western democracies — and how those of us who believe in free markets and open societies can respond. When I arrived in the House of Commons 15 years ago, I was advised by older members never to ask a question in Parliament that you didn’t already know the answer to. Fifteen years later, unburdened by office, I have finally thrown caution to the wind.


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