The politicians' podcast is an exercise in nostalgia
Political Currency, George Osborne and Ed Balls’s new podcast, joins an embarrassing litany of similar ventures with terrible names. The Rest is Politics was already nonsensical, The News Agents slightly sickly, and the new The Rest is Money plainly cretinous. Political Currency sort of works, though lurking behind it is the obviously more decorous “Political Capital” (which, when focus-grouped, must have seemed too much of a cognitive stretch for the general listener). But the title raises a glaring question: why name a podcast after a resource of which these men are utterly spent?
Much like The Rest is Politics, the offer is that apparently unique quantity: former opponents who have come together for the greater good. “Ed and I are frenemies!” Osborne squealed on his publicity rounds, sounding like an eight-year-old describing playground power dynamics to a bored parent. No, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn were frenemies. Separated ideologically for most of your careers by a Rizla of fiscal caution, you are both now languishing in the same political exile, robed in the obligatory polo shirt of post-parliamentary retirement.
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What did they discuss in the first episode? HS2 — value for money or white elephant? Chinese spies in Parliament — what went wrong? The pension triple lock — albatross or political weapon? Most of the subject matter provided an opportunity for reminisces about their golden times in office — memories of the Coalition negotiations, say, or trips to Beijing. In between, they played the old hits (Osborne managed to get in something about Labour selling off all the gold and Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money” note). Their conversation was stuck hopelessly in 2014 — they managed to discuss the triple lock without any mention of the intergenerational inequality that is behind the campaign to abolish it.
Now, after years of punditry, Ed is by far the better talker. He speaks in full sentences, sometimes even full paragraphs. But, just as he does on one of his new showbiz larks, he manages to seem and sound simultaneously twinkly and dead-eyed. Was Celebrity Best Home Cook really what fate had in store for this obviously intelligent former Harvard Fellow? In ten years will he just be Ed Balls of “Ed Balls Day” fame?
Osborne has a less appealing manner. Jettisoning that unfortunate “Gideon” never could diminish his aristocratic sneer, that permanent-adolescent hauteur. On the podcast he hawks his one-liners from the touchline, rather than leading the conversation. But one of these interjections did give the episode its most memorable moment. Discussing Prince Andrew’s former usefulness as a trade envoy in the Gulf, Osborne quipped “Was this oil or massage oil?” You could hear Ed Balls begin to sweat.
It was a moment of rare hazard in an otherwise steady, dull affair. And the proliferation of these competently produced but inherently thin political podcasts says something depressing about the decline of the form. Podcasts, much like online blogs, lay down a gonzo challenge to radio, offering spontaneity, personality, speciality. But the arrival of BBC veterans and former secretaries of state in the studio spells an end to that moment. Who wants to listen to a podcast that sounds suspiciously close to a re-run of Treasury Questions?
In the trailer Osborne boasted that this was his and Ed’s time. That “we’re back to the kind of politics you and I would have been more familiar with: contesting the centre ground; two reasonable people who want to be prime minister but with different agendas…” It’s superficially correct, but is he serious? Has he seen the Just Stop Oil activists calling for an end to capitalism, the revivified trade union movement, the Victorian iniquities of Britain’s rentier economy and the return of war to Europe?
At the intellectual, material and extra-parliamentary level, politics is proceeding in weird and unexpected directions, not returning to some happy equilibrium. The last thing we need is another podcast that pretends otherwise.