Even the Sun still loves Tony, but sack that speech-writer

Media

The most significant milestone in the last general election campaign came when Alastair Campbell held up a first edition of the Sun declaring support for Tony Blair.

With the Mirror Group corporately and the Guardian/Observer more selectively contributing to Labour's finances and with a Blair adviser in charge of the Express group, new Labour was about to clean up. The Daily Mail grumbled its way to the polling booth, but with the late Lord Rothermere spurning the Tory benches and Paul Johnson boasting of magical, intimate dinners with Tony and Cherie, there was never any chance of the Mail backing John Major. Even the Financial Times was signed up to new Labour. With White Van man, Mondeo man and BMW man all safely in his drive, Blair had no cause to worry about the mud-splattered Telegraph Range Rover or the pogo-sticking eccentrics at the Times, who campaigned for the Referendum Party.

But how does the media landscape look now?

Judging by their response to the Prime Minister's platform fulmination against the "forces of conservatism" in Bournemouth, the enthusiasts have become, if anything, more enthusiastic. The Mirror and the Express thought Blair's speech magnificent, as did the Guardian, which admired "a powerful argument" and "smart politics". The FT is so pleased with the way its writers are running the economy that its senior columnist Martin Wolf could offer only this advice on the eve of the Conservative Party conference: "All Mr Hague can sensibly do is avoid anything foolish, while waiting for time and political tide to tarnish Labour's glittering legacy."

The picture among the naturally conservative white broadsheet newspapers is less even. The Times, without the lodestar of Jimmy Goldsmith, travels a dizzy, anaemic political course these days. It praised the meritocratic intent of Blair's conference speech but demanded more passion - surely the one commodity in oversupply on this occasion. As with the Independent, the Times's political essence is no longer reliably distilled into its leader columns. Whether this is an accident or commercial positioning in an age of promiscuous party-political allegiance is not entirely clear.

What is certain is that the political fragmentation at the Times is one of the factors that has encouraged the Daily Telegraph, under the true and unblinking Conservative grip of Conrad Black and Charles Moore, to heat up its rhetoric. To be the party of 25 per cent of the voters is a problem; to be the newspaper of such a large slice of the population is an attractive proposition.

It has to be said, however, that the new, strident Telegraph is not as lucid as the old, country-squire version. Every day it reads more like a speech delivered through a megaphone to a street full of fox-hunters. Following day one of the Tory party conference, when Hague launched his "common sense revolution", Janet Daley, responding to the whiff of subversion in the Canary Wharf air, wrote: "Since last week [ie, since Blair's Bournemouth attack on 'the forces of conservatism'], today's politics is changed forever," an Alastair Campbell-like sentence which, I think, requires a new theory of time for it to make sense.

In attacking conservatism, she argued, Blair was attacking all of us. Hence, it was "simply brilliant" of the Tories to label their latest miscellany of promises "common sense radicalism", since we have now reached a point where the conservative instincts of the British people (ie, Telegraph readers) must be judged radical, even revolutionary, when set against Downing Street's monomaniacal totalitarian excesses. Even if you were disposed to agree with this position, it's difficult to see it stirring the confused voters of the Tory heartlands.

And that, really, is as about as good as it gets for William Hague. True, in the Mail, Paul Johnson has written a spurned-damsel piece suggesting that dear Tony, with his lovely Catholic wife and jolly kids, may be no more than "a clever actor", but he'll just as easily write the opposite again next week. The Mail's editorials, which unlike those of the Times do represent the intellectual centre of the newspaper, have called Blair's Bournemouth speech "a huge miscalculation", but they also simultaneously speak of the government's "remarkable successes" and express admiration for ministers such as Gordon Brown, David Blunkett and Jack Straw. Moreover, William Hague's conservative revolution didn't even make the Mail's front page.

But what of the Sun, the Sun wot won it, both for Maggie and for sad, despised John Major? The Sun wot one year ago branded William Hague's Tory party "a dead parrot"? Well, the Sun was among those who chose to read events in Bournemouth as decisive evidence that Blair does indeed intend to lead Britain into membership of the European single currency, a cause that brings the Sun out in spots. In a jam like this, the scriptwriter has only one, humiliating choice: bring back the parrot, with Richard Littlejohn as the pet-shop owner.

Re-heated, convoluted story lines like these never work. Even in the rambling, page-long editorial that pronounced that "the parrot has stirred", and which preposterously claimed the first sighting of vital signs in William Hague, we were told that "Tony Blair is a good man. We cannot see ourselves changing horses." With opponents as terrifying as these, Blair needn't worry about the relationship between the newspapers and his re-election chances. He should, however, fire his speech-writer.

The author is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children