The Tory party conference began on Monday, and Radio 4’s Today programme gave it the kind of send-off reserved for truly hopeless causes. Item after item emphasised the Tories’ unfitness to govern, their uniformly low spirits and their enduring unpopularity. One excited reporter even suggested that the party might slide off the political map as the Liberals did, an event which he chose to place in the 19th century. The reason for all this wailing and gnashing of teeth was the Conservatives’ abysmal performance in the Hartlepool by-election — which we had known about for three days — and a Populus poll which appeared in that morning’s Times showing the party’s support at 28 per cent. The story covered almost the whole of the front page of the tabloid version of the paper, and was about as unfriendly to the Tories as it was possible to be in the circumstances, and as supportive of Tony Blair. It read: ‘Poll trouble for Tories as Blair bounces back’.
Many people will argue that the media’s almost universal depiction of the Conservatives as a bunch of no-hopers is no less than the truth. Maybe so. But this dire version of events should be viewed in the context of the government’s own tribulations. Tony Blair’s personal ratings have plummeted, and most people believe that he lied to them over the Iraq war. Blairites and Brownites are at one another’s throats. The Labour party did not have a particularly successful conference. Of course, the press has given full vent to the Prime Minister’s difficulties, but the effect has not been to encourage it to take another and more sympathetic look at the Tories. Far from it. The anti-Tory papers — the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mirror — do not bother to conceal their contempt. The Murdoch press — the Sun and the Times — remain staunchly Blairite, and are inclined to minimise or ignore his lies and inconsistencies over Iraq. Most interesting of all, what remains of the Tory press is not as stalwart as it was.
It was not for nothing that the Daily Telegraph was called the Daily Torygraph by Private Eye. Its traditional role has been to support the Conservatives through thick and thin. True, it grew a little exasperated with Ted Heath, though it still could not bring itself to support Margaret Thatcher in the second and final poll for the leadership in 1975. Even during the appalling Major years the paper remained constructively loyal. Of course, there is no suggestion that it is turning against Michael Howard, but after the honeymoon that followed his unopposed election — shared by much of the media — a note of reserve has crept in. This partly reflects the political beliefs of the new editor, Martin Newland, which are less fiercely right-wing than those of his predecessor, Charles Moore. The paper’s changed relationship to the party was revealed in an interview with Mr Newland last weekend in the Independent on Sunday. He said that the Daily Telegraph’s editorial policy is now less ‘ideological’ than it was during Mr Moore’s editorship, and that it was ‘probably a mistake’ for the paper to have supported Iain Duncan Smith. Mr Moore, of course, was IDS’s most passionate cheerleader. Mr Newland’s remarks indicate a significant change in outlook.
Because it fervently supported the war against Iraq — a policy conceived during Mr Moore’s reign — the Daily Telegraph has found itself unwilling, or unable, to attack Tony Blair at his weakest point. No such considerations impede the Daily Mail. It is the only paper that consistently and unreservedly criticises Mr Blair. (How refreshing, by the way, to see Sir Max Hastings, erstwhile Blair groupie, savaging his old hero in the Mail’s pages.) The paper never turned on IDS, but it welcomed Mr Howard with undisguised relief, and for a time could find little wrong with him. In recent months a note of disappointment has been discernible. The Mail would like Mr Howard to be more specific about tax cuts, and to make more of issues such as immigration. The Telegraph, by contrast, prefers the inclusive Mr Howard, and is perfectly content for Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, to be vague about tax. Both papers found much to admire in Mr Howard’s speech on Tuesday, but they want rather different things of him. What remains of the Tory press is therefore divided, and Mr Howard will find it difficult to please the Mail and the Telegraph at the same time. I have excluded the Daily Express from serious consideration because, though back in the Conservative fold, it is maverick and lightweight. It also senses that the tide is running away from Mr Howard, and gave his speech very short shrift.
Despite the government’s difficulties, the Tories probably enjoy less support in the press than at any time during the past seven years. Even Neil Kinnock could rely more on the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in Labour’s dark days in the 1980s than Mr Howard can on the Mail and the subtly re-aligned Telegraph. What can he do? His best hope is that Tony Blair will go on impaling himself, and that Labour will suffer a little — a collapse is too much to hope for — in the polls. Then the Mail and Telegraph would set aside their reservations, the Express would come dependably on side, and the Sun, whose editor, Rebekah Wade, holds a candle for the Tories, might take them more seriously if her proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, could be persuaded that they had a chance. At the moment proprietors and editors assume that they are going to have to do business with Labour (though perhaps not with Tony Blair) for the next five years, and unless or until that perception changes no newspaper is likely to go over the top for the Tories. As things stand, Mr Howard can count on getting precious little help from the press.
Say what you like about the Times, it boasts some of the best columnists in Fleet Street in William Rees-Mogg, Simon Jenkins, Matthew Parris and Anatole Kaletsky. But as a consequence of the tabloid version of the paper, these gentleman will be writing at shorter length. So that the layout can work in both broadsheet and tabloid editions, some 300 words have been lopped off every column, the average length of which is now fewer than 1,100 words. Some readers may be relieved. But it is another example of the tyranny of the tabloid version in transforming the nature of the whole paper.
I imagine Charles Moore will have been unperturbed by the criticisms of IDS. But he will have spluttered over his shredded wheat if he saw an article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph which, having referred to Lord Alfred Douglas, repeatedly called him Lord Douglas. There are still a few pedants like us who object to this sort of thing, as I equally abhor the near universal practice of writing ‘the Revd Smith’, omitting his Christian name. No doubt the raising of such objections is to be regarded as the death rattle of Old England, not to be taken seriously in the go-ahead country in which we live.