It is bad enough that a small, profoundly unrepresentative electorate of fewer than 200,000 Conservative Party members and MPs will choose the UK’s next prime minister for the third time in six years, but the truth is even worse. It may very well be the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the paper’s parent company DMG Media, that will ultimately determine who succeeds Boris Johnson.
Since Johnson’s 7 July announcement that he would resign, the powerful but poisonous tabloid has abandoned any pretence of impartiality in the contest. It has made no genuine attempt to inform or enlighten its millions of conservative readers about the views and relative merits of the candidates. It has singularly failed to perform the basic journalistic duty of holding them to account. It has instead pumped out Soviet-style propaganda and deployed every dirty trick in the book to boost Liz Truss, the favoured successor for Johnson supporters, by destroying Penny Mordaunt, the rival best-placed to prevent the Foreign Secretary reaching the final round against Rishi Sunak.
Take today’s Mail front page (18 July). It ignores the record-breaking heatwave, and largely passes over Sunday night’s TV leadership debate. The outsized headline instead proclaims: “Mordaunt flouted No 10 ban to meet boycotted group”, in reference to her meeting with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in February last year. Below, the strapline reads: “[Tory leadership hopeful] is condemned for ‘dodgy judgement’.”
No matter that this is an old story – the Sun reported on it at the time. No matter that Mordaunt openly tweeted about the meeting then, or that the MCB is arguably Britain’s leading Muslim umbrella group and neither can, nor should, be ignored.
The Mail’s story is a classic smear by association, and one bound to inflame its readers’ latent or not-so-latent Islamophobia. And who does the Mail quote to substantiate the charge that Mordaunt showed poor judgement? Two anonymous “government sources” – code for No 10. “The longer this campaign goes on, the more Penny’s dodgy judgement is being exposed. Do MPs really want more stuff like this coming out if she’s in No 10?,” one allegedly said.
Further down, for good measure, the same article notes that Mordaunt once posted a tweet that appeared to praise Extinction Rebellion, and that a survey showed Truss would beat Sunak in a run-off.
This is no aberration. Day after day, the Mail has used banner front-page headlines to boost Truss at Mordaunt’s expense. On 17 July the Mail on Sunday asked: “Does leak show Penny did back gender self-ID?” On 16 July the Mail proclaimed: “Liz tax boost for families”, alongside a second article dismissing Mordaunt. On 15 July it declared “Mordaunt under the microscope”, citing an attack on her by David Frost. On 14 July it blared: “Unite now or we lose, Truss tells Tory right”. On 12 July it stated: “Truss: back me or it’ll be Rishi”.
It is not hard to guess why the Mail has chosen to debase itself by serving so blatantly as Liz Truss’s mouthpiece. It is doing Johnson’s bidding.
The paper that claims to be the voice of decent, respectable, law-abiding middle England shamelessly backed the departing Prime Minister as he repeatedly lied, betrayed, partied and reneged on promises. Just prior to Johnson’s defenestration on 7 July the Mail insisted that he “stands head and shoulders above his would-be assassins”. The day after its front page declared: “What the hell have they done?”
Johnson clearly sees Truss as the candidate who would fight hardest to protect both him and his legacy if she succeeds him in No 10 – it was no accident that his two most slavish supporters, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, endorsed Truss while standing outside No 10. Truss has always been intensely loyal to Johnson, not once criticising his many transgressions. Though she backed Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, she now champions Brexit with the zeal of the convert. She plans to ditch the Northern Ireland protocol (the trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland). She will fight for Ukraine to the last Ukrainian.
The Mail’s sycophantic support for Johnson and his preferred successor could earn Dacre a peerage in Johnson’s resignation honours list, compounding the immense damage the Prime Minister has done to the entire honours system through his disgraceful rewarding of cronies, donors and dubious Russian friends.
But it is a gamble. In backing Truss so vehemently, the Mail may eventually find it is wildly out of line with the silent majority that it claims to champion. She may yet overhaul Mordaunt to reach the run-off, and could even go on to beat Sunak, but her victory would hardly be greeted with rapturous acclaim by the country as a whole.
Truss lacks charisma, is deeply divisive and has run a dismal campaign. She has produced no compelling new ideas. Her appearances have been wooden and robotic. She is the only candidate who has yet to give a proper broadcast interview in this campaign.
An Opinium survey conducted straight after last night’s TV debate (17 July) asked more than a thousand voters whether each of the five candidates would make a good or bad prime minister. Mordaunt came third with a score of -4. Truss came a comfortable last with a score of -26.