The Murdoch press won't back Labour. Will anyone?

As News International's titles prepare to defect, Brown can only count on the support of the Mirror

It has been clear for some time that the Murdoch press, so assiduously courted by New Labour, will throw its weight behind the Conservatives at the next election.

The Sun and the Times's support for the Tories in last month's European elections and their endorsement of Boris Johnson as London mayor last year suggests that both are preparing to abandon Labour at the general election for the first time since 1992.

Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, who worked alongside Rupert Murdoch for many years, has argued that the government's more redistributive approach means there is "no doubt" that News International's titles will endorse the Conservatives.

In addition, the Daily Telegraph's Christopher Hope recently reported that the fierce criticism of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson by the Guardian over the phone-hacking scandal had persuaded Murdoch to back Coulson's new boss, David Cameron, at the next election.

The News Corporation head and his ideological guru, Irwin Stelzer, were initially sceptical of Cameron and attracted to Gordon Brown. Both were impressed by Brown's intellect, his work ethic and his religious commitment.

Murdoch, a strong opponent of monarchy and aristocracy, and nostalgic for the days when Margaret Thatcher's cabinet contained "more old Estonians than old Etonians", was also reluctant to support a man with a background as privileged as Cameron's.

As John Rentoul writes in his column today:

One thing Rupert and James (Murdoch) do seem to share is an anti-establishment mentality, a resentment against British snobbery directed against their family business: they have no affinity for someone of Cameron's background.

But as Brown's woes have multiplied such doubts appear to have been buried.

There are those who argue that newspaper endorsements are of little consequence; fewer people are reading papers and few have ever read the leaders in which endorsements are made.

Yet crucially such editorial judgements come to shape a paper's general news coverage, as embarrassing stories are amplified or diminished accordingly. The winning party can also count on a fair hearing from the relevant titles once in government. In this regard, it must be a matter of some concern to Brown's aides that Labour appears to be losing the support of much of Fleet Street .

Besides the News International titles, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express (which rescinded its support for New Labour in 2005) can naturally be relied upon to rally behind Cameron, while Brown's famously warm relationship with Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has failed to deter that paper's increasingly visceral attacks on Labour.

The Financial Times, which has backed Labour since the 1992 election, is known to be prepared to support the Tories but as the most Europhile title on Fleet Street its anger over Cameron's fierce Euroscepticism may yet prevent such a defection.

The Guardian cannot credibly endorse Labour so long as Brown remains leader, having called on the party to force him out. There is even less chance of an endorsement from the Independent, which is likely to call for a hung parliament or support the Liberal Democrats.

Only the Daily Mirror can be relied upon to offer Labour unambiguous support at the next election.

The migration of the press towards the Tories is likely to become more, not less, explicit as the election draws closer. The left may have been resigned to right-wing dominance of the media for decades but even so, the flight of the press from Labour can only further damage the morale of an increasingly desperate party.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.