How much support can David Cameron count on from Fleet Street when he goes into the next election? There will always be Bruce Anderson, now of the Independent, who will support any Tory leader even if he is Iain Duncan Smith or the proverbial orang-utan. And there is the Spectator editor and Sunday Telegraph columnist Matthew d'Ancona, who likes his politics centrist and pallid.
Otherwise, as Cameron passes his first anniversary as Tory leader, his support looks thin. "There will be no celebration," ruled the Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne. "His strategy lies in ruins." In the same paper, Melanie Phillips has accused Cameron of "insulting his party's past", while Stephen Glover has found "a rather shocking detachment from the lives of ordinary folk". It may seem inconceivable that the Mail would fail to back the Tories in an election but its editor, Paul Dacre, has a soft spot for Gordon Brown and a Mail leader has stated: "Cameron v Brown, on present performance, would be gimmickry v gravitas."
Daily Telegraph columnists are almost unrelentingly hostile to Cameron. Even Boris Johnson, a shadow minister, sounds in his Telegraph column as though he thinks the Cameron leadership is a bit of a hoot. However, in the first verdict under its new editor, Will Lewis, its unsigned editorial was more friendly. Cameron was "positive, upbeat and resilient". The courtiers, "advisers who are almost a caricature of gilded metropolitanism", were at fault, not the king.
Many Tories hoped that, once the PM stepped down, Rupert Murdoch's papers might back Cameron as the best Blairite available. But with the great man apparently unconvinced, the signs are not good. "For goodness sake," storms the Sun, "tell us why anyone should VOTE for you!" There were hopes, too, of the Independent, particularly as Cameron's policy priorities might seem in tune with this ultra-green newspaper. Often thought to be a paper of the left, the Independent's true heart lies with the dampest Tories. The deputy editor, Ian Birrell, has been tipped to head Cameron's press operation. But I doubt the paper would wish to provoke the staff and reader unrest that might follow a Tory endorsement. It is more likely to stick with its tradition of declining to back any party.
Cameron may have to find much of his support from hard-core Blairites who cannot stand the sight or sound of Gordon Brown. But before the 1997 election, Tony Blair attracted a stampede of commentators previously hostile to Labour. I see no prospect of the same thing happening in reverse.
Does any of this matter? Newspaper readership is declining, and very few have ever taken much notice of what unsigned editorials say. Some analysts suggest that, in future, the blogosphere will be the main forum for political debate. But for now, the press still sets the news agenda. It has never directly influenced votes; rather, it creates the context within which people form opinions. It may well have relinquished that role by, say, 2015 but not, I think, by 2009 or 2010.
Cameron will need at least a few friendly editors and commentators if only to boost the morale of his campaign managers, candidates and activists, who certainly do read the papers. So the outlook for him is murky at best. But wait! What is this? "The first year of the Cameron strategy," writes one pundit, "has been a success", with Cameron fit to be compared with the Tory liberal giants, Harold Macmillan and Iain Macleod. Alas, it is none other than William Rees-Mogg of the Times, whose flawed judgements have earned him the sobriquet Mystic Mogg. Sorry, Dave, you really are in bad trouble.
The thrill of it
The press adores the story of Alexander Litvinenko, the poisoned Russian. First, it arouses nostalgia for the simple certainties of the cold war, when journalists knew who our enemies were - sinister, jowly, fanatical men in heavy overcoats and fur hats - and could identify them without worrying that they might be accused of racism or religious hatred. Second, it involves "mysterious" and "secret" agents. Since their activities are, well, mysterious and secret, any number of stories can be written without fear of denial. Third, the story involves radioactivity. Newspapers have long been excited by claims that we shall all get brain cancer from mobile-phone masts and microwave ovens. The idea that half of London's hotels and restaurants are contaminated by "deadly polonium-210" is almost too thrilling for words.
The best example of what can be done with such priceless material came from the Mail on Sunday. In one spread, it combined traces of radioactive poison at Arsenal football ground, a French Riviera car crash involving a Russian billionaire and "his beautiful companion" (pictured in her underwear), and "a master spy at the heart of the Italian government". Bliss!