Maybe even Murdoch isn't smart enough to solve this one

With every new revelation, you have question how much longer this can last without becoming real tro

Where do we go from here? The events of the past week have left many of us reeling, and it seems there is more to come. Every time I sit down to write something about the unfolding disaster for the Murdoch empire, there's a new development. The news is moving faster than ever before, it would seem, and the old rules of engagement have been cast aside: now the papers are openly taking shots at each other.

Time was you could rely on what Henry Kissinger might have called an "uneasy peace" in Fleet Street. We knew they all hated each other, and wanted to bring each other down, but they didn't declare open warfare. Now that's changed: the Mirror has piled on to the giant playground bundle on Rupert Murdoch and decided now is the time to make capital out of their rivals' misfortune (or misdeeds, whichever way you want to look at it). You can see the attraction, although I rather fear it will be the Daily Mail, as ever, which quietly goes about picking up the biggest share of disaffected Sun readers and former News of the World readers. It doesn't need to go for the jugular -- it just sits back and picks up the scraps.

It's a strange, bewildering scene, this News of the World-free Britain, a place where allegation and counter-allegation get fired out in rapid succession. When the biggest selling newspaper can disappear in the course of a week, it seems everything is built on sand, including the sureness of our Prime Minister's long-term future. The once automaton-smooth David Cameron has looked agitated, out of his depth, uneasy and uncertain when answering tough questions from the kind of journalists who don't do dirty digging. He even ended up repeating the same phrases over and over again ("second chance" re: Andy Coulson) in exactly the same way that made his counterpart Ed Miliband a laughing stock only a few days before. And then there is Miliband, a Dalek-like milquetoast one minute and a ferocious performer the next, seizing his opportunity to be more than a punctuation mark in Labour's history. What's going on?

Peering on from the sidelines, one feels like Harry Carpenter incredulously screaming "He's hurt Tyson!" as the massive underdog Frank Bruno landed a quality shot on the world heavyweight champion back in 1989. We all knew it wouldn't last, and Bruno was going to be splattered into a meaty pulp at some point during the evening, but there, just for a moment, the certainties were shaken to the core. Surely it will all be all right in the end for Rupert Murdoch; surely this is just a blip in his otherwise glittering career. "Say what you like about Murdoch, but he always gets it right." That was the received wisdom before this past crazy fortnight -- something we could all rely on, whatever happened. And surely that won't change. It can't change. Can it?

Perhaps it can. Maybe Murdoch's aura -- if it ever really existed -- is beginning to fade. For now, acts of desperation can be top-spun into shrewd little deals. Optimistic statements that everything is going to be all right can be portrayed as promises, rather than aspirations. But with every passing day, every passing moment of uncertainty and turmoil, every new revelation eagerly unearthed and devoured, you have to call into question how much longer this can last without it becoming real trouble. It was tempting to see the daft old billionaire grinning away with Rebekah Brooks in the street the other day and recall the outraged Sun headline "CRISIS -- WHAT CRISIS?" Which presaged the decline of "Sunny Jim" Callaghan. But maybe not. Maybe Murdoch will get out of this, like he's got out of fixes before.

We shouldn't underestimate him, of course. He's not that dumb; far from it. But maybe even he isn't smart enough to solve this one.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.