Stephen Glover

Mr Howard will not impress the voters by sucking up to Mr Murdoch (and Mr Bush)

Mr Howard will not impress the voters by sucking up to Mr Murdoch (and Mr Bush)

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In July 1995 Tony Blair famously travelled to Australia to grovel at the court of Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers in Britain subsequently offered him their support. Last week Michael Howard travelled to Cancun in Mexico with a similar purpose, though the Tory party could only afford to send him club class while Murdoch bigwigs went first. Mr Howard had lunch with Mr Murdoch last autumn, and an invitation to address News Corp senior executives followed. Naturally all this has given rise to a great deal of optimistic speculation in the Howard camp.

But it would be premature to think that Mr Murdoch is about to dump Tony Blair in the same way that he dropped John Major. Eleven months before Mr Blair made his 22-hour journey to Australia, the great proprietor had already signalled his changing mood. ‘I could even imagine supporting the Labour leader, Tony Blair,’ Mr Murdoch told an interviewer in August 1994. The next day Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times, went even further. ‘I can certainly imagine supporting Tony Blair, yes,’ he said. By the time the Labour leader travelled to Australia, both the Times and the Sun were regularly bashing the Conservative government, and it needed no great imaginative leap for them to rally to the New Labour cause.

Although Mr Murdoch has indicated that he has a lot more time for Mr Howard than he did for Iain Duncan Smith, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that he is about to switch his support to the Tories. In recent months the Times and the Sun have been particularly sycophantic towards the government. Of course they are at odds with Mr Blair over the euro, but since this issue has been kicked into the long grass it need not come between them in the foreseeable future. Though Murdoch’s newspapers sometimes bleat about high taxes, they approve of New Labour’s handling of the economy. Above all, the Times and the Sun venerate Mr Blair for his loyal support for George W. Bush over the war against Iraq. After all, Mr Murdoch is an American citizen, and his newspapers defend the American cause. There seems to be very little prospect that either the Sun or the Times will support the Tories before the next election.

Nonetheless, you cannot blame Mr Howard for trying. In any case he could hardly have refused Mr Murdoch’s invitation. When a governor of an outlying province is required to pay obeisance to the emperor in Rome, he does not hang about. But I can’t help feeling that the Tory leader went a little further than was strictly necessary in pressing all of Mr Murdoch’s erogenous zones. Early last week some senior Murdoch executives were complaining in private that Mr Howard had not reprimanded the Spanish people for kicking out the conservative government after the terrorist attacks in Madrid. Some of Mr Howard’s shadow Cabinet colleagues were saying the same thing. Once he was in Cancun, Mr Howard forgot his former reticence on the subject and gave the Spanish a sound ticking-off. ‘It would be a terrible thing indeed if last week’s murders in Madrid led the terrorists to conclude that attacking America results in retribution, but attacking Europe results in victory.’ In other words, he said something to please News Corp executives in Cancun which he had chosen not to say to his own countrymen. After praising America as the fount of capitalism, the Tory leader entered a passionate defence of the war against Iraq, describing it as just, necessary and ‘arguably overdue’.

This was doubtless what Murdoch and his henchmen wanted to hear. But I wonder whether, at a time when the war grows increasingly unpopular with the British people and Mr Blair’s prosecution of it is so widely criticised, it makes sense for Mr Howard to re-emphasise that he is standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the same bunker with Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair. You may say that he was merely being principled and stating what he believed, but I find that a little difficult to accept. He was saying what he supposed Murdoch and his executives most wanted to hear, and in so doing forgot that there is another, ultimately more important audience, called the British people, which has justifiable reservations about the conduct of the war and increasingly wonders whether it should have been fought at all. It would have been possible for Mr Howard to have made anti-Saddam and anti-terrorist noises without tying himself into the same position as Blair and Murdoch.

It is a mistake for any politician to exaggerate the power of the press. Mr Murdoch is not, in fact, the emperor in Rome, and Mr Howard should have the dignity of a man who could conceivably become the next prime minister of Great Britain. Mr Murdoch is in the business of getting people to buy his newspapers and watch his television channels. If he thinks that process will be assisted by having the Tories back in power he will back them, but at the moment he like everyone else must see that they are a less plausible administration-in-waiting even than this increasingly ramshackle government. If the Tories make themselves more electable and perform consistently better than New Labour in opinion polls, Mr Murdoch will turn to them, just as he turned to Tony Blair when it became clear that John Major and the Tories were finished. But Mr Murdoch is not going to lead the Tories back to power, and Mr Howard need not and should not suck up to him and his senior executives while forgetting about the British people.