Tony Blair called them "feral beasts". Gordon Brown raged against their "obsession" with his leadership. Yet for five years the media have treated David Cameron with awed reverence, the Prime Minister's abilities and achievements amplified and exaggerated by a compliant press and an admiring commentariat.
The offenders have ranged from the usual right-wing suspects in the Murdoch-owned stable of newspapers to the much-maligned "liberals" at the BBC. "We can watch the body language," said a credulous Andrew Marr to the Tory leader, on 2 May. "We can all see you're on a roll, aren't you?" Just four days later, despite outspending a tired, divided and unpopular governing party, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Cameron's Conservatives failed to secure even the slimmest of parliamentary majorities. Eight of the country's top pollsters had predicted an outright Tory victory during the election campaign but the election itself produced the country's first hung parliament in 36 years. So much for Dave being "on a roll".
For five long years, the media have been in the grip of the cult of Cameron. He was born to rule and destined to win; his inevitable victory would usher in change, renewal and a fresh start - "a new politics". The Tory leader had "modernised" his party and "detoxified the brand"; he was a liberal, progressive one-nation Conservative.
From the very beginning, in December 2005, when Cameron defeated David Davis to become leader of the opposition, journalists and columnists from across the political spectrum could barely restrain their glee. "The new dawn of Dave", proclaimed the Evening Standard. "Tories pick man with compassion on his mind", announced the Independent. "Tory golden boy", puffed the Sun. "A good day to be a Tory", declared the Daily Mail. Compare and contrast those sycophantic words with the blizzard of hostile "Red Ed" headlines that greeted the new Labour leader on the front pages of the Sunday papers on 26 September, the day after Miliband the Younger won his party's leadership election.
Labour leaders, especially in opposition, tend to attract more bile and vitriol from the press than their Tory counterparts. But, as Alastair Campbell, Labour's former spinner-in-chief, pointed out in these pages in September 2009: "For Cameron, 'easy ride' does not begin to describe it." Campbell referred to the then leader of the opposition as the "most underexamined, underscrutinised, untested and policy-lite leader in history".
Some of us had hoped that this might change upon the Tory leader's arrival in Downing Street as Prime Minister. Yet still Cameron is praised, acclaimed and extolled. In July, in the wake of an "emergency" Budget described as "regressive" by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a Labour-supporting Guardian columnist declared Cameron to be the "best all-round prime minister of the modern era". Why? Because of his "courtesy and charm".
“I think we've had very good press so far," a grinning Conservative minister told me at the party's conference in Birmingham. "Good" is an understatement. Cameron and his allies have been given a pass by much of the mainstream media. Take the ongoing row over Andy Coulson. On 4 October, speaking on Channel 4's Dispatches, a former News of the World journalist claimed that Cameron's director of communications had listened to the intercepted voicemail messages of public figures during his period as editor of the paper. The response from the BBC and from the Murdoch-owned press? Near-silence. That the Prime Minister's chief media adviser may have misled MPs - "I never condoned the use of phone-hacking; nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone-hacking took place," Coulson told the culture select committee in July 2009 - is considered neither news nor worthy of outrage.
Nor are the various U-turns, volte-faces and broken promises that have characterised the Prime Minister's first five months in office. In opposition, for example, Cameron declared that Tory tax plans "don't involve an increase in VAT". In government, he has raised VAT by 2.5 per cent. In opposition, Cameron promised that spending cuts would not be "swingeing" and would be focused on "waste". In government, he revealed that they would affect "our economy, our society - indeed our whole way of life". In opposition, Cameron pledged "no more pointless and disruptive reorganisations" of the NHS. In government, he is presiding over the biggest shake-up of the NHS since its creation in 1948. In opposition, Cameron said: "the whole point about child benefit is that its universality is part of its simplicity and part of its effectiveness"; his then shadow chancellor George Osborne said there was "absolutely no threat to child benefit". In government, Cameron and Osborne have cut child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers and destroyed the principle of universality.
Fickle, not just feral
Does the angry reaction to the child benefit cut from the right-wing press signal that times are finally changing? Are the media becoming more willing to criticise and oppose? "Fury of stay-at-home mums", screamed the Daily Mail on 5 October, the day after the Chancellor's conference speech. "Stay-at-home mothers hit by benefit cut", shrieked the Daily Telegraph. For the first time, the Prime Minister will be aghast to find himself fighting a war on two fronts: on the one hand, against the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and other journalists who have escaped from the cult of Cameron and, on the other, an emboldened, Ed Miliband-led Labour Party.
Some Tories are relaxed about the negative headlines that the party has attracted during its first conference in government since 1996. "This is just a bit of predictable conference-bashing," says a senior Conservative source. Others are more worried. "I think we could be 10 points or more behind the opposition in a year's time," a Tory minister told me in Birmingham with a shrug of his shoulders. "We're going to be introducing difficult cuts while Labour enjoys its Ed Miliband bounce."
In his memoir, Blair writes that the moment he knew it was time to stand down was when he realised that his "constituency in the media had evaporated". The media are fickle, as well as feral, beasts. Cameron should beware.
Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman.