Sun on Sunday: a muted debut

Not quite brave new world, not quite News of the World re-badged.

Here it is, then, the first ever Sun on Sunday. Or The Sun Sunday as it's called on the masthead, the word Sunday depicted in red against an arc of yellow, like a beautiful sunrise. (This gives us the rather troublesome abbreviation of "The SS", but I suppose "the SoS" was just as awkward.)

A brave new world, a new dawn... or just the News of the World repurposed into a new format? Well, let's take a look.

I should say before I begin that I'm not a regular Sunday paper buyer. For some people, a Sunday paper is as much a part of the Lord's Day as having petty arguments in Ikea or eating a disappointing Sunday dinner in a horrible carvery. For me, though, Sunday editions are typically heavy on lifestyle garbage and light on news; and, call me a dinosaur, but I do like the news aspect of newspapers.

The Sun Sunday certainly represents newsiness, with the word "exclusive" spotted 12 times on the front and back covers. The vast majority of these "exclusives" are, however, columnists' views rather than breaking news; the real exclusivity for this first issue was is in getting the big names to write for the Sunday Currant, rather than getting big news to fill it.

So what was the big splash to hook in new readers?

There on the front page is Amanda Holden, holding her newborn daughter and telling of the time she nearly died. For many reasons, it's a brilliant story to select as the SS's first: it's a "willing participant" celebrity story rather than one that's been dug up behind the victim's back; it's a positive story rather than knocking someone; it is, above all, a "good tale".

Compared to the other big red-top Sunday splashes -- Jimmy Greaves having a stroke (People), Charles and Camilla "living separate lives" (Star) and Kerry Katona planning to get married (Mirror) -- it's the most interesting, and will appeal to most buyers.

The Scottish Sun on Sunday, meanwhile, went with actual news as opposed to celebrity tales, claiming to reveal the date of the Scottish independence referendum as 18 October 2014. Is it really the "date of destiny" or not? Well, chances are that we'll probably have forgotten about the prediction by then, just as we've always forgotten about every General Election prediction misfire. But you have to admire the story selection, which is spot-on.

On page 3 there are no naked breasts, but to ease the pain for Sunday-morning masturbators, there's a photo of Kelly Rowland with a "handbra" pose, neatly straddling the tits/no tits dilemma for this week. Like the Sun on Saturday, the Sun on Sunday is coy about the breasts it's so proud of the other five days of the week and those oh-so-hilarious captions in which the MODELS talk about POLITICS as if they've got a CLUE about what they're SAYING.

Later on in the paper, subverting the perception of women in the Sun, former page 3 stunnah Katie Price keeps her clothes on (as is her right, one supposes) to address the nation with her views.

Price is someone it's almost impossible for someone like me to criticise without looking like a snob, so I'll try my best not to fall into that bear trap. To summarise, though: she would love to have met Marie Colvin; she admired Whitney Houston; she urges people to support the Paralympics; she says state schools can teach kids a lot and that private education is not necessarily the best way to go for parents who can afford it.

It's quite well written by Price (I'm looking straight to camera, like Harry Hill) but there seems to be something missing, some spark of personality, some spice.

It's the same when I steel myself to read Toby Young's column later in the paper and find it lacklustre: it seems sanitised, bland, unappetising. I'm no fan of Young's but I can see the point of him, or at least the point of him when he writes as he usually writes: he's there to stir things up, create a few ripples and get people talking. His first outing, though, was dull. If he's not there to write like Toby Young, why hire Toby Young?

"Aha," you may say, "You want it both ways, Baxter. You'd criticise the Sun if it came out all guns blazing, and now you're criticising them for being too bland."

And there is probably a grain of truth in that. But there seemed something muted about this first edition, something missing -- some kind of spark of creativity and fun which was what set the Sun apart from its rivals in the first place.

Perhaps the launch was a "safety first" endeavour designed to avoid controversy at all costs; perhaps those evil liberal thought police have won and neutered a much-loved British beacon of democracy and truth; perhaps it was just first-edition nerves. It can't have helped that everyone knew Uncle Rupert was looking over their shoulder while they were putting it together, and didn't want to be the one to make a big mistake.

Let's talk about sport now. Hear me out. The News of the World had by far and away the best Sunday football reporting of any newspaper, due to the sheer amount of resources it poured in and the breadth of coverage, right down the leagues, and that drove a lot of sales. The SOS's back pages are crammed full of interviews, reports and features, including a preview of today's Carling Cup final -- though (perhaps tellingly) no Liverpool voice was available, so the Sun spoke to Jose Mourinho instead.

There was also a rather strangely isolated article about Luis Suarez's family and his racism row stuffed into the main paper -- whether it wasn't considered worthy of the sports section or a cup final preview I don't know, but it seems rather odd where it is.

The 28-page Goals Plus picks up the main bulk of football action, with terrific analysis of Premiership and Championship football, a good shout for League One and League Two, and superbly crafted pages of pictures, graphics and stats.

If I was ever going to buy the SOS, it would be for Goals Plus - and it's daft to ignore that factor when considering why punters pick that paper they choose on a Sunday. There were a couple of teething problems in my copy with the use of fans' tweets at the top of match reports, but those will be ironed out, I'm sure.

So that's what I liked.

What I didn't like so much was on page 9, an initial toe in the water to cheerlead for a new military campaign in the Middle East. "Like it or not, Britain is going to war again," says political editor Tom Newton Dunn, in an opinion piece after an exclusive about plans being drawn up for action against Iran.

The Sunday version of the Sun, as with its versions the other six days of the week, will fall into line when it comes to backing whatever military action this country takes. They won't be alone in that, but it's a statement of intent.

For the 50p introductory price, the SS does represent decent value for money. It's got enough content to keep you happy for a couple of hours on a Sunday if you like that sort of thing, and if you are a football fan, the coverage is probably the best that's out there. It's not a brave new dawn, and it's not quite the News of the World rebadged either; it's just a way of keeping the money rolling in.

If it stays as safe as the launch edition, some readers may drift off to find something with a little more punch, but I suspect the content will mature.

We'll find out a lot more next week. I say "we" but I won't be buying it again; once was quite enough for me. If you like the Sun the rest of the week, though, fill your boots.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear