- George Osborne’s uncle James, 70, says what he really thinks about Brexit
- He also opens up about the royals, Boris Johnson and Joan Collins
- He says of Sir Philip Green: ‘The most unpleasant person I met in 27 years’
Jane Fryer for the Daily Mail
18:14 EST, 29 April 2016
03:57 EST, 30 April 2016
George Osborne’s had quite a week, what with all the pomp and palaver of President Obama’s recent visit and a poll showing a swing in favour of Brexiteers.
But it can’t have helped that, on top of all that, senior members of his very posh family keep popping up to share their passionate views on why, in stark contrast to George, they think we’re far better off leaving Europe.
First it was 70-year-old Uncle James, the self-confessed black sheep of the family who once introduced himself to David Cameron as ‘the skeleton in George’s cupboard — the dreaded casino operator!’
Forthright: James Osborne – the naughty and indiscreet uncle to the chancellor, George Osborne
Last week, James Osborne breached family etiquette to share his view of the government’s controversial 14-page booklet, which warns of endless economic costs if voters back the Brexit campaign. ‘It’s ludicrous! Grossly unfair!’ he railed, saying that he didn’t ‘think it was fair to produce a leaflet costing nine million quid with taxpayers’ money and send it 27 million households’.
Before clarifying, of course, that he was a ‘great supporter of George’ and ‘the only member of my family for Brexit’.
This latter claim doesn’t seem entirely accurate, though.
Hot on James’s heels, George’s Aunt Jennifer Little, 77, told the world that while she, too, was terribly fond of her nephew, both she and her husband Antony totally disagreed with him when it came to Europe.
She then rubbished several of the booklet’s central tenets and admitted to a very soft spot for the Mayor of London. ‘I love Boris,’ she said.
Who next, I wonder — George’s other auntie, Caroline, a church-going widow who lives near Manchester?
Or perhaps his father Sir Peter Osborne, the joint founder (with his brother-in-law Antony Little) of multi-million-pound interiors firm Osborne & Little?
‘No, no, no! He’s all for remaining,’ cries Uncle James, who is chatting very animatedly in the gorgeous golden drawing room of his beautiful 1790s Kent pile. ‘He thinks it’s better for his wallpaper business.’
So why did James and Jennifer break ranks? After all, it’s not very helpful for poor George.
Apparently, it’s all Boris’s fault.
James’s older brother: Sir Peter Osborne and his son, George Osborne pictured in 2005
‘He’s the one who started it all. I met him on the “Vote Zac” bus last week — I love Zac [Goldsmith, running for mayor of London], his father was always very good to me. And I love Boris — you can’t not, can you?
‘Anyway . . . I said to him, “Next time you see George, tell him you met his Brexit Uncle.”
‘I always promised my brother I wouldn’t get too involved in politics. We’ve both been kept very much in the background, me and my mad sister. Hidden away! We wouldn’t do George’s chances much good,’ he adds with a naughty glint.
‘But I thought, well, if all the Cabinet are allowed to say what they think, then why should I keep quiet? It’s not party political, is it? It’s meant to be an equal fight, and it’s not. I feel very strongly about it.’
He certainly does and has a lot to say about everything from the EU’s ‘colossal bureaucracy’ to the appalling lack of democracy; the scaremongering by the Remain camp about the supposed impact of leaving on household prices and cheap flights, and the myths about immigration.
‘There’s this mad idea that if Brexit wins, we’re going to throw everybody out — that’s just absurd.’
Once he gets into his stride, there’s no stopping him or, for that matter, wanting to. He is fantastic company.
We cover everything from his pet monkey — more on that later — to how ‘frightful’ it must be to be a Royal.
‘Awful to have all that money and they can’t have private aeroplanes. They can’t have their own yacht because of their image. And to have to carry on opening biscuit factories, age 90. I mean, Christ!’
He looks pained at the thought.
‘They can’t even behave how they like! They certainly can’t behave like Prince Philip did in the Fifties . . . well, I suppose Harry can.
‘He’s very good Harry, isn’t he? The young love him.’
James is not a man much bothered with ‘image’, careful conversation, or today’s obsession with political correctness.
In fact, he and nephew George seem to have little in common. The latter seems so buttoned-up and controlled — though James’s wife Janie puts that down to his ‘unfortunate presentation face’ and tells me that he’s actually ‘great fun’.
Whereas James has no filter, laughs like a drain and loves to gamble: ‘I’d hate to watch a horse race without a bet!’
His father Sir George Osborne was a baronet, his mother a terrifying-sounding matriarch.
He was the youngest of four children and he spent his working life running half-brother John Aspinall’s various zoos and casinos — Howletts zoo and The Clermont, Aspinalls and later the Aspers clubs.
He dealt with aristocrats in tails, Chinese dressed down in shorts and T-shirts, and Sir Philip Green: ‘The most unpleasant person I met in 27 years in casinos — rude to absolutely everyone.’
He is retired now, but lives lavishly thanks to a five-year stint running a casino in Australia’s northern territories, which netted him £8 million back in the early Nineties.
‘This house is entirely a consequence of the poor slot machine players in Darwin,’ he says cheerily, arms waving expansively. Who might feel a trifle sour if they popped in, because it is utterly fabulous: wall-to-wall Osborne & Little decor, a moated island, swimming pool, sweeping lawns and landscaped gardens dotted with sculptures of gorillas, elephants and wild boar.
George Osborne: The chancellor has had quite a week, and on top of it all, his family keep sharing their views on why they think we’re far better off leaving Europe
The Darwin windfall also paid for a spectacular party for 450 in a vast marquee in London’s Battersea Park in 1996. So spectacular that Joan Collins begged, via interior designer Nicky Haslam, to come.
‘My wife said “No way”, but I said: “Don’t be silly darling, she’ll be part of the cabaret and the children will be amused.” ’
Janie relented, but put Joan on a dud table with all the people no one really knew, with her back to the room. She was supposedly furious.
‘Well, what did she expect — the top table? We didn’t bloody know her,’ says Janie, a very attractive and vivacious blonde who pops in and out all morning.
‘Anyway, we’re not doing that again,’ says James. ‘That was our one big blow-out. Now, goodness, have we even mentioned Brexit in the last hour?’
Good point. No. So we whip back to the referendum and, in particular, Barack Obama’s interference in support of the Remain camp last week. ‘It was none of his business and hypocritical to suggest to the British people that they should do something that the U.S. would never do with their neighbours.’
And of course, ‘that leaflet’.
‘No, I haven’t read it. I suppose I should have done, but Janie said it wasn’t very helpful and threw it away.’
‘We’re slightly nervous about upsetting George,’ says Janie. ‘Because we actually think he’s doing a good job, don’t we?’
‘Of course! I just don’t agree on Europe.’
At least James is consistent. While he voted for a common market back in 1975 on the basis that it ‘seemed sensible that the price of a bottle of Perrier water or a Mercedes Benz should be the same in London, Paris or Berlin’, he never anticipated a United States of Europe, and has been anti-Europe ever since.
When his late friend, billionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, invested £20 million in the anti-Europe Referendum Party in 1997, James stood for Canterbury, canvassed for six weeks and won just 2,460 votes.
‘But God it was good fun! We had all the money — the Libs and Labour all had blotting-paper leaflets but ours were all thick card from Smythson,’ he crows, referring to the posh shop where Samantha Cameron used to be creative director.
‘They hated us. We had the most terrible insults. One man said he’d rather castrate himself with a rusty breadknife. So we said: “Ah, so we can’t rely on your vote then, Sir?” Ha ha.’
He can’t see why anyone with half a brain would want to go into politics nowadays.
‘Literally, you can’t pick your nose for fear of ending up in the papers,’ he cries. ‘What business of anyone’s are Cameron’s tax affairs?
‘I knew his father — charming man. Disabled, too — little short legs. But utterly charming and they didn’t affect his life at all. It’s all so intrusive. I don’t know how they get good people any more.’
He seems at a bit of a loss as to why people as bright as his nephew would choose Westminster.
‘If George had gone into the City, he’d probably have got to the top of Unilever or BP or somewhere, and be earning half a million or so a year,’ he insists.
Instead, he says, his background is a disadvantage.
‘It’s toxic nowadays to be rich,’ he says. ‘George is one of four heirs to a wallpaper firm, not a long-standing fortune from hundreds of years of sugar slavery in Barbados, for goodness sake. My brother Peter [George’s father] and I didn’t inherit anything.’
And with that, we move onto what really happened to Lord ‘Lucky’ Lucan, a family friend, professional gambler (which was ‘absolutely socially unacceptable in those days — almost like being a paedophile’) and, James says, ‘a terrible racist’.
‘He used to say my mother had the body of the Queen Mother with the mind of Al Capone,’ he says. ‘Which coming from him was a bit rich, wasn’t it?’ As everyone knows, one night in 1974 Lucan somehow mistook his nanny for his wife, bludgeoned her to death and then vanished into thin air.
‘I’m guessing of course that he was very drunk on vodka. But I know nothing. Obviously.’
Most people assume Lucan died that night — but what of the assertion by James’s mother, Lady Mary ‘Al Capone’ Osborne, an accomplished gambler herself, that Lucan shot himself and his body was fed to the tigers at Howletts zoo the very next morning?
‘Look,’ he says firmly. ‘Tigers much prefer to kill than to eat, and people don’t taste very nice — very fatty.’ Howletts’ wild boar were ‘more likely to have eaten him all up if he’d been thrown in, but, well, it’s such an absurd idea.’
But if anyone knows about animals and their dietary preferences, it’s James.
Lady Felicity Osborne, Sir Peter Osborne and Lord Astor pictured watching the racing at Glorious Goodwood in 2014
When he and Janie were first married, their London flat was overflowing with exotic beasts.
‘Our first child was a baby chimp called Yonkers,’ he said. ‘She had nappies and a pram. She had her own bedroom, but she used to come into ours. Darling Yonkers.’
There was also a pet wolf cub.
‘People thought it was an Alsatian when it was little,’ he says. ‘We’d take it for walks in Hyde Park. Then it started howling at the moon.’
Human babies didn’t come so easily, so in 1979 they adopted twin boys, George and Toby.
‘Good thing we’d had the chimp to practise on.’
Ten years later, they also had their ‘miracle’ son, Harry, 28, conceived after endless rounds of IVF.
The twins are now 38.
‘They don’t even vote — can’t be bothered. One’s a househusband, the other does hardly anything — so that’s two hundred grand down the drain on their education.’
Not like the very industrious Chancellor, who isn’t actually George, of course. He was christened Gideon, but adopted his middle name in his early teens, ‘to smooth his path in politics — very sensible, too’, says James, adding: ‘My latest grandson has been called Silas, so I rather expect we’ll have another George when he’s 14 or 15!’
So finally, despite his poor ‘presentation face’, will nephew George be their first choice for PM when Cameron steps aside?
‘Obviously! Blood first and all that, but if he got hit by a bus, then Gove. He’s very good, he’s very clear and he hasn’t got a toxic public school education like the rest of them.’
And on that note, and after the most entertaining morning I can remember for ages, we call it a day.
‘Oh dear, I do want to have my older brother still talking to me,’ he says apologetically. Before adding: ‘But I don’t think I was quite the embarrassment that he was expecting, do you?’