Voters read Femail, not the Mail

Why is the government - as the New Statesman goes to press, at least - so determined to hang on to Keith Vaz? Well, for a start, despite the swirl of dark allegations and even darker rumours, there is not one "killer fact" that would ensure his departure. But it is more than that. The loss of his best friend has instilled a new steeliness in Tony Blair. Yes, he has taken an emotional knock, but he has also had to face up to the question: "Who runs Britain - the government or the tabloid press?" And all the signs are that he does not like the answer.

Whatever brave face is put on publicly, there are undoubtedly worries in Downing Street that Peter Mandelson may have been sacrificed too far and too fast because of the press. Had Alastair Campbell not had the lobby pack baying for blood in his basement briefing-room, the decision to ditch Mandelson might not have been made quite so ruthlessly. Now lobby gossip has it that the Daily Mail and the Sun are determined to "get" Keith Vaz - the winning of one scalp has only increased their bloodlust for a second.

Mandelson is not the only minister to have been dealt a fatal blow by the tabloid campaign against him. One minister has told me in private that she has decided to call it a day at the next election, in large part because of an endless stream of vicious press attacks; and another is thinking of doing the same. There is a feeling in government that relentless and highly personal campaigns against ministers are taking a toll - measured in distraction, fatigue and poor decision-making, as well as the occasional resignation.

This is why the Prime Minister told the Cabinet recently that he is declaring war, a cultural war, against the newspapers which finished Mandelson, may still get Vaz and which, once upon a time, he himself so keenly courted. Blair has noticed. He has got it. So long as the Daily Mail is dictating the agenda, then the Prime Minister is in office but not fully in power.

It is not only ministers who will be defended, but also the party's "social agenda" against the likes of the Mail. Social agenda means, in this context, policies on sex, parenthood and family values. These are crucially important, for hard electoral reasons. According to analysts of the Labour landslide such as MORI's Bob Worcester, one of the big groups that swung over to Labour in 1997 was younger women, many of them with children. Their defection from the Tories, still not fully explained, almost closed the historic gender gap. Now, however, they are drifting away from Labour once more. According to recent research from the Fawcett Society, there's now a 9 percentage-point satisfaction gap between men and women: in other words, women are much less satisfied with the government than men are. Gordon Brown's frantic advertising of the 1999 child tax credit scheme shows that he has noticed.

There is no doubt that more money for parents helps keep the fickle younger women inside the Labour fold. But what of the wider message? What do they really want? And can Blair afford to give it to them? Young Britain is less likely to be married, it is relaxed about divorce, it has no hang-ups about single parenthood and it is pretty promiscuous.

The government may not be in favour of all this, but knows that it has to deal with the world as it is. Traditionalists and libertarians in the government may disagree about the importance of marriage, but no one really thinks they will alter the behaviour of younger voters.

Back to the Daily Mail. Ministers may be sending out deliberately complex messages, but their critics are not. The relentless and sanctimonious tide of "why oh why?" journalism that laps around the government is sure of itself, clear and forceful. Ministers know that single parenthood has large social costs. Going with the "anti-Sixties" agenda would appeal, personally, to many men in the government. It would get the Mail off their backs. So why not?

Here, I think, is where Keith Vaz has done a real service for his master. The Prime Minister was always susceptible to the Mail world-view, but now he is plain angry. The vicious jibing, not just at Vaz, but at almost every female member of his government, has driven him to the conviction that the romanticised Fifties world of that paper has to be confronted and dismissed.

So, assuming that he means what he told the Cabinet earlier this month, what kind of risk is he taking? In my view, not much of one. The best antidote to taking the Mail too seriously is to watch readers going through it. Do they spend their time on the politics at the front? Not at all. Every female reader I see hops straight to the middle, to Femail - the daily women's section - written and designed for people living in the 2000s, which is the real secret of its success. Hard-nosed, gossipy and practical, the female Femail is a million miles from the toffee-nosed posturing of the male Mail a few pages earlier.

This is the secret of the Daily Mail that perhaps ministers should ponder. Because the division between "first-half Mail" thinking (reassuringly traditional, male, moralistic and conservative) and "second-half Mail" living (less hung-up, female, inquisitive and experimental) reflects a division in the country as a whole, or certainly its politics. We like our political leaders, it seems, to say they favour the old ways, including traditional marriage. But don't let them try to punish the non-marrieds, or their children, or act fiscally or in social policy, as if they want us to change our behaviour.

Labour has to stop kowtowing to the dream of the nuclear family, where single mothers are excoriated and working mothers accused. And it has to realise another thing. The tabloid press is powerful. But if politicians show a little spunk, it need not be all-powerful.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose