Despite cable TV, streaming services and social media providing 1001 distractions, the Tory press charges on like an old, angry bull, its rage undiminished by the losses the technological revolution has inflicted on its readership and finances.
You can fool yourself today that its power is back to its 20th century peak. The police had investigated Keir Starmer’s Durham campaign event and found he and his colleagues had broken no Covid rules. But day after day the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express hammered away at the story – fake or otherwise – and the cops felt they had no choice but to reopen the inquiry.
I could go on about the Tory press’s double standards and its bootlicking of the ruling clique. The contempt of journalists for their own trade, which allows them to become a private arm of the government propaganda service, and their contempt for their readers. One minute it tells them not to worry about the multiple and proven charges against Boris Johnson because 'THERE’S A WAR ON!', the next to forget about Ukraine and look at scores of articles about an unproven accusation instead.
After this performance, Keir Starmer should not even think of trying to woo the Tory papers, the historian and journalist Steve Richards warned. They cannot be seduced. 'Once they’ve decided they want to get someone, they don’t stop. You cannot understand British politics without including in your assessment at every key moment the power of the Tory newspapers,' he said.
The first point is unarguable. The second raises a question you hardly hear asked: is the Tory press now a danger to the Tory party?
Maybe Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have made a stupid mistake and are taking an insane gamble, and will have to resign over an infraction of the law the police originally found was no infraction at all. Maybe the Tory press will throw the Labour party into the most ridiculous of leadership contests and the factional and ideological infighting will weaken it – just as its strength is returning. The political editor of the Times reported on 6 May that as Durham Constabulary are poised to reinvestigate Sir Keir Starmer over beergate, Tory spads (special advisers) were told that it was one of most successful CCHQ attacks on Labour in recent history'.
But it doesn’t feel that way a week on. Everywhere you can hear the sounds of gears clunking into reverse and ferrets scampering back to their burrows. Keir Starmer should not have to resign if he is fined for breaking lockdown rules, said Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Daily Telegraph, or at least its columnists, agree.
Somewhat late in the day, they are sensing the dangers. If the police find Starmer and his colleagues have done nothing wrong, the Tory attempt to drag everyone else down to Johnson’s level will have failed. Starmer will be able to present himself as a man of principle, and show that not all politicians are as sleazy as the Prime Minister. After an uncertain few years, he will be defined as a leader who took a risk and was vindicated. As for Johnson, he will be exposed as the man who presided over a rolling house party in Downing Street and never came close to matching Starmer’s honourable behaviour. The Tory press will have succeeded only in hurting the Tory leader – and not for the first time.
The Owen Paterson scandal, which did so much to define this government as a 'might is right' regime that tolerates no constraints, began with Charles Moore. Writing in the Telegraph in October last year, he portrayed Paterson as a victim. Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for standards, was letting Labour MPs off lightly, he claimed, while treating Conservative MPs – 'especially pro-Brexit Conservatives such as Mr Paterson and Boris Johnson himself – much more harshly'.
Johnson read the piece, but either didn’t read – or read and ignored – the parliamentary authorities' conclusion that Paterson had brought 'significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons' by taking six-figure lobbying fees. Johnson's attempt to defend Paterson, undermine the commissioner and rewrite inconvenient rules ended in disaster. Conservative backbenchers turned on him. Paterson had to resign and the Lib Dems won the by-election.
Kudos to Charles Moore. I’ve worked in the liberal press all my adult life but I have never produced a column that caused such damage to a Conservative government.
Tim Bale, the historian of conservatism, has come up with the useful phrase of the 'party in the press'. Tory newspapers can turn on Conservative leaders as John Major and Theresa May know, but most of the time a Conservative leader has what a Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and nationalist leaders can only dream of: a bloc of newspapers willing to act as his or her cheerleaders, private detectives and bodyguards.
The advantage became a curse in the Paterson case and may curse the Conservative Prime Minister if the 'Beergate' scandal ends with Starmer’s vindication. Johnson cannot see the danger because he is too tied to the media. He is not a grand figure, some latter day Margaret Thatcher, who gives orders for the Tory press to follow. He is not a modern Stanley Baldwin who put the Tory press in its place when he said in 1931 that newspapers enjoyed 'power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.' (Actually it’s been the prerogative of the client throughout the ages, as he has the real power, but we will leave that to one side.)
Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Express, and Lord Rothermere, owner of the Mail, were daring to run candidates against the Conservatives, so Baldwin denounced their newspapers for manufacturing 'direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context'. Once they got back into line, these criticisms were, of course, forgotten.
Johnson neither commands the Tory press as Thatcher did, nor humbles the Tory press, as Baldwin did. He is part of the Tory press. It nurtured and created him, and when he is thrown out of Downing Street, it will welcome him back to his only real home.
The UK is learning the hard way that journalists should never be allowed to manage anything. Hard cases test arguments and I will prove my point by taking the hardest case of all: my editor at The Spectator. I love Fraser Nelson as a brother. I would gladly risk my life for him, or at least sustain a minor flesh wound. If any Tory journalist had to be prime minister, I would nominate him. But even in Fraser’s case the idea remains a dangerous absurdity, as the collapse of the Johnson administration is showing. Journalists don’t stick to anything. We move from story to story. We can never be trusted to put in the hard, boring work.
Here’s how a pundit prime minister thinks. Levelling up the north of England? Yeah, great idea, readers up there will love it. But I’ve already done that. Boring. Just because we say 'you’re only as good as your last story' doesn’t mean you can repeat your last story. Forget about the north. What can we do instead? Tear up our solemn agreements on Northern Ireland? Dump refugees in some Rwandan hell hole? Tell residents they can vote on their neighbours’ conservatories? (Quirky one that, but it might fly.) Whatever it is to hell with the experts who say it will never work, they’re just moaners who want to talk your story down.
This is no way to run a country. It’s not much of a way to run a newspaper, now that I come to think about it.
If it turns out that Keir Starmer is the conscientious public servant he appears to be, Tory journalists will just move on to the next story. The Prime Minister will have to live with the consequences, which I suspect will be as grim for him as they were for Owen Paterson.