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11 February 2023

Right-wing newspapers are killing the Tories with kindness

Little wonder some in the party are in denial about what could be about to hit them – they’re heading for a cliff and all they can hear is cheering.

By Jonn Elledge

In the early hours of Friday morning, the Conservative Party lost another by-election. That was always probable – West Lancashire has not been Tory since 1992 – but what is noteworthy is the sheer scale of that loss. Between 2019 and this week, Labour increased its vote-share by more than ten points; the Tories decreased theirs by nearly 12. (Reform, in third place, was nowhere.) That’s pretty much consistent with the polls: the New Statesman’s Britain Predicts model, which got the result pretty much bang on, currently says that if a general election was held today, we would be on course for a Labour majority of 198.

And so, a question: why aren’t the Tories panicking? Why aren’t they running around gibbering like the end of the world is nigh? Perhaps they are – decisions like appointing Lee Anderson, or sticking the Prime Minister on a private plane at every opportunity and to hell with the optics, do have a certain Yolo quality to them. For the most part, though, I suspect not: Rishi Sunak is giving smiley interviews about how Labour hasn’t closed the deal, and the talk is all of the party pinning its hopes on the next election being 1992 not 1997, as if the latter provides any sort of floor for Tory seat numbers. (It doesn’t: for one thing, that result came in the middle of an economic boom.)

This, to me, suggests a failure of imagination. The more extreme electoral maps, suggesting a near total wipeout, are probably not going to happen. But parties can and do die – witness what happened to Canada’s Progressive Conservatives back in 1993. And after a decade of lost growth, scandal after scandal after scandal, and years of openly sneering at people under the age of 65, would anyone be particularly surprised if these were the death throes of the Tory party?

[See also: The West Lancashire by-election shows the Tories’ Red Wall strategy is failing]

So again: why aren’t they terrified?

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I have a theory – but not one, I fear, that is likely to help my career: it’s all the fault of the press. The well-documented pro-Tory bias of much of print media, which has done so much to help the party win, is now acting as a massive drag on its chances of actually pulling itself out of its hole. Client journalists are killing it with kindness.

Once you start looking for pro-Tory media coverage that might, just might, be backfiring, you start to see it everywhere. There’s the stenography – the columns written or tweets sent, that exist simply to tell us what Downing Street is thinking of this week. That’s clearly a massive advantage in framing events when things are going well, but equally clearly, a source of false comfort when they are not.

Then there’s culture-war nonsense, filling the politics pages with minority interest stuff about statues or university free speech. Again, in good times, this is helpful, crowding out opposition attacks and potentially putting it on the unpopular side of wedge issues. In bad ones, though, it makes the governing party and its outriders look like a bunch of out-of-touch weirdos less concerned with the electorate’s energy bills than with their obsessive need to – let’s just pick a random example out of the ether here – spend two hundred million quid on a new royal yacht.

Pretty much every trick that papers like the Mail or Sun use to prop up the Tory party has this double-edged quality to it. Downplaying real problems like the terrible performance of the British economy. Saying that bad politicians or terrible speeches are actually good. Providing platforms for vanishingly unpopular ideas like “Singapore-on-Thames”. Providing a platform to right-wing loudmouths, who swing voters might, quite understandably, mistake for cranks. (I know it’s been a while, but does anyone else remember the Telegraph’s short-lived attempt to position Mark Francois as a potential leader?)

That last bit brings me to my final, most timely example. Surely nobody doubts that the many opportunities these papers provide to Tory politicians to promote themselves was helpful in the inexorable rise of Boris Johnson. But I’m not sure TalkTV allowing one of his strongest political allies to interview him last week will have quite the same effect. Neither, come to that, will the Sunday Telegraph allowing Liz Truss to write 4,000 words on how, when she accidentally sent mortgage rates spiking, she was actually right all along. At least some of the people involved in these commissioning decisions think they’re helping the Conservative Party.

Usually, it would be silly to claim the Tory dominance of the press was anything other than a massive advantage: obviously if the choice was between that and the inability to get a sniff of a hearing that greets most left-wing ideas you’d take it, like a shot. But it isn’t always an advantage. The function of the press is not merely to inform the public what the government is up to, but to tell the government how the voters really feel. It isn’t only the first of those on which the British press has often done a bad job.

And so, as things have got worse, the Tory papers have become an elaborate machine for constructing an alternate reality: more than once over these last few years, the Conservatives have done incredibly unpopular things, and been greeted with delighted headlines like “At last! A true Tory budget”. Little wonder some in party are in denial about what could be about to hit them, and remain convinced the real threat to their future is not Labour but Reform. They’re heading for the cliff, and all they can hear is cheering.

[See also: Dominic Raab’s defenders are wrong – being “tough” doesn’t work]

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