Going into Labour

Media - Bill Hagerty on how Tony Blair has a hold over the national press

As far as many national newspapers are concerned, the general election is all over - including the shouting. Such was the clamour as the majority clambered aboard the Blair bandwagon, almost before it had arrived back from the Prime Minister's tete a tete with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, that it's a wonder some did not get flattened under the wheels.

Almost three weeks before polling day, we know where most of the papers stand - and that's four square behind the recently departed government. The Sun said so even before the election day that never was, 3 May, and its muscular Sunday sister, the News of the World, is so deep in Blair's pocket that it could scratch his ankle.

There was never any doubt about the Trinity Mirror papers, nor the Guardian and Observer. The Express papers and the rejuvenated Daily Star were treading the Labour path under their previous ownership, and their new boss Richard Desmond has, if anything, accelerated the conversion of titles that, not so long ago, were slavish in their support of the Conservatives. The relentless whirr that can be heard throughout Ludgate House is not a faulty ceiling fan, but Lord Beaverbrook spinning frantically in his grave.

There is, as ever, a cluster of ditherers. Simon Kelner has said that the Independent will not break with the tradition of declining to suggest how its readers should vote, but it's clear where the paper's sympathies lie. The Times, which in 1997 urged its readers to vote for the most Eurosceptic candidates, regardless of party, is heading for a personality crisis as it searches for a valid reason to support William Hague. And the Sunday Times, despite lambasting Gordon Brown over his "high tax strategy" and giving Robert Harris space to fire a torpedo at the "truly loathsome" modern Labour Party, is broadly supportive of the outgoing government. Both of the heavyweight, Murdoch-owned Wapping titles are likely to declare, if somewhat grudgingly, for Labour.

Over at Associated Newspapers, Paul Dacre must be agonising as he sees Labour gain strength and the Tories continue to totter. It is inconceivable that the Mail and Mail on Sunday will cease their hostilities towards Labour, but Dacre is canny enough to know that unquestioned support for the Tories is both futile and commercially unsound, especially as the readership of the papers is so broad-based.

The Mail provides the most coherent opposition to Labour, with columnists such as Peter McKay and Keith Waterhouse going for Blair's throat with a lucidity and zeal the Tories must envy. The London Evening Standard, part of the Associated stable, is an interesting maverick under the editorship of Max Hastings, and may support Labour again. Which leaves Conrad Black's consistently right-wing Telegraphs as the only newspapers guaranteed to support the Conservatives in their hapless struggle.

If ever a shoe has been transferred to the other foot, the change in the balance of the political allegiance of the press is it. Fewer than 20 years ago, when Michael Foot was leading the Labour Party into an election against a prime minister presenting herself to the nation as a mixture of Boadicea and Catherine the Great, the only supporters of Labour were the Mirror Group titles, the Guardian and the Observer (then independent of one another). All the other papers I have mentioned so far, with the exception of the as yet unborn Independent and Sindy, cheered Margaret Thatcher home in 1983. The combined circulation of the pro-Tory press, daily and Sunday, was a little more than 21.5 million, as opposed to 11.2 million or so on the other side. Circulations have declined dramatically in the interim, but if I am right about who supports whom - and with both the Mail and Independent removed from the sum - the bulk sales, adjusted figures for 2001, will be almost 18.7 million pro-Labour against the total 1.7 million sold by the Telegraph papers.

Newspapers probably wield far less influence with their readers than the Labour hierarchy believes, a view shared by Rupert Murdoch, who, despite the paper's claim in 1992 that it was the Sun wot won it, told me he believed editors and politicians "vastly overestimate our influence". But this will be of small consolation to Hague as the Fleet Street juggernaut bears down on him.

The problem now for the papers, especially those already wearing red roses in their buttonholes, is how to maintain the momentum of their political coverage in the run-up - more like a leisurely stroll - to 7 June. The Sun has the advantage of its hard Euroscepticism, and is able to keep Trevor Kavanagh happy by unleashing him to antagonise Blair whenever its right-leaning political editor needs compensating. The Mirror has no such bolt-hole. Even the normally trenchant Paul Routledge was reduced to wittering on about apathy being the real enemy in the same issue that urged readers to vote Labour.

Fortunately, the Daily Star is still on top of the story, splashing on a celebrity U-turn from Tory to Tone Babe, with the headline "Geri [Halliwell] Goes Into Labour". Well, that's one way of spicing up the election.

Dark clouds still hover over Ludgate House as Richard "Journalists earn how much?" Desmond continues his cost-cutting cull. Between nervous glances over their shoulders, those in the corridors of fear whisper that Martin Townsend, the personable editor of OK! magazine, will soon take over the helm of the Sunday title, with the current editor, Michael Pilgrim, becoming another casualty of Desmond's personal price war. With morale on the floor and the daily flagship's circulation probably still heading that way, despite its slight recent rise, the chortles of Mail executives must be audible all the way from Kensington.