The Tories, we are told, are a party of unstable men who are genetically predisposed to plotting against their leader. I would certainly appreciate a learned piece on this subject from the Times’s esteemed medical correspondent, Dr Thomas Stuttaford. Perhaps when he has finished with the Tories he could turn his attention to his own paper. For if the Tories love to kill their leader, the Times loves to kill the leader of the Tory party. Under the editorship of Peter Stothard, the paper waged a fierce campaign against William Hague. Now it is gunning for Iain Duncan Smith. It seems that, no less than the Tories, senior journalists at the Times are only truly happy when they are trying to bring down the leader of the Conservative party.
I do not deny that there is a case to be made against IDS, though it has been difficult not to be impressed by the way in which he has attempted a rearguard action over the past few days. Nor do I complain if Times columnists should have it in for the Tory leader. Tim Hames and ‘Captain’ Michael Gove have long harboured feelings of affection for Michael Portillo, and Mary Ann Sieghart is entitled to her view that IDS was born several apples short of a full picnic. More distressing is the way in which the paper constantly exaggerates or spins supposed news stories about Mr Duncan Smith.
Almost alone in the press, the Times made much of the alleged ‘ticking off’ which IDS received from the Cabinet Office for using his official car to attend a football match and to ferry his children to school. This was a footling matter which the Times, in an attempt to damage the Tory leader, blew up out of all proportion. As I mentioned last week, the first name above both stories was that of Tom Baldwin, the paper’s deputy political editor. Mr Baldwin is a veteran of other campaigns against Tory leaders. He was at the forefront of the Times’s smear campaign against the Tory treasurer, Michael Ashcroft. This was intended, in part at least, to hurt William Hague, who was Lord Ashcroft’s protector. A few weeks before the 2001 general election Mr Baldwin was at it again, as my colleague Peter Oborne observed in these pages, seeing evidence of a Portillo-Clarke conspiracy to unseat Mr Hague.
Far from being a sober paper of record in its coverage of Tory party politics, the Times increasingly resembles one of those rather scurrilous, if entertaining, 18th-century factional newspapers. It is certainly not to be trusted. But it would be wrong to single it out among what used to be called the Tory press. The Sunday Telegraph has been almost as partisan in its coverage of the tribulations of IDS. It was, after all, the paper which broke the ‘Betsygate’ story, surely a storm in a teacup if ever there was one. It has run a string of anti-IDS columns, culminating last Sunday in a tirade by a pipsqueak former Tory aide called Dominic Cummings. This shrill piece compares unfavourably with the magisterial intervention of William Rees-Mogg in the Sunday Times in 1965, which not unjustly cast Sir Alec Douglas-Home as an able county batsman who could not be expected to shine at Test-match level. Perhaps, in that respect, a little like IDS.
Picture yourself, if you can, as a Tory party member attempting to follow developments and make up your mind as to who would be the best leader. You would certainly get a very skewed impression if you relied on the Times or the Sunday Telegraph. You would not get much enlightenment from the BBC, which, beside generally portraying IDS as a half-wit, has been assuming for days that he is doomed. Where else might you go? The Sun has written off the Tory leader, though an editorial on Tuesday rather surprisingly rallied to his defence. The Daily Mail has delivered hectoring sermons to the Tory party, demanding that it pull itself together, but decided not to pronounce against IDS until Tory MPs made their intentions clear. The Daily Telegraph, which was once Mr Duncan Smith’s most fervent cheerleader, has sat on the fence. It probably secretly hoped that its former hero would fall, but was reluctant to give him a push.
Now that 25 Tory MPs have sent letters to Sir Michael Spicer, it seems certain that IDS’s days are numbered. Would he have fared better had he received fairer treatment at the hands of what used to be called the Tory press, and particularly the Times? Let us hope, when a new Tory leader emerges, that Robert Thomson, the self-effacing editor of the Times, gets some grip on his senior men. Just as the Tory party risks becoming a laughing stock as a serial assassin of its leaders, so the Times has acquired a reputation for wishing in a nihilistic way to unseat whoever leads the Conservatives.
New editors always like to sack a few people. It is a sort of tribal process by which the incoming leader seeks to establish his supremacy. Sir Max Hastings was very good at it, as you would expect. Martin Newland, the new editor at the Daily Telegraph, has so far showed admirable restraint. So far as I am aware, he has sacked only one person. The trouble is that he has got the wrong man.
Michael Kallenbach had written the Parliamentary report for nearly four years, having previously worked for the Daily Telegraph in other capacities. By common consent he did the job very well. Not only has he been sacked; the entire page has been junked. Charles Moore reintroduced the Parliamentary page at the end of 1999, causing the Times and, in a more limited way, the Guardian and the Independent to follow suit. There was much rejoicing among those who believed that the serious press, along with the BBC, had not been taking Parliament seriously enough.
Mr Kallenbach’s sacking has drawn forth an early day motion, which has attracted about 20 signatures from the three main parties, asking Mr Newland to think again. You may say that these backbench MPs are merely upset that their debates and question times will no longer be written up by Mr Kallenbach. But don’t they have a point? Shouldn’t a serious newspaper offer some Parliamentary coverage over and above the Parliamentary sketch? Mr Newland appears to think that the man on the 7.42 from Sidcup has other things on his mind than the proceedings of Parliament, and would prefer to read pages of reports about the Rugby World Cup, or examine the latest pictures of Elizabeth Hurley. I am not so sure. I think the man, or woman, on the 7.42 is more serious-minded than you might think, and could be easily persuaded that half a page of Parliamentary reports was an essential part of the newspaper. Mr Newland would show himself to be a very big man if he thought again.