The New Statesman Profile - Trevor Kavanagh

He announced the date of the election. So is the <em>Sun</em>'s political editor now the most powerf

The last Friday in March was the first decent day of spring. Unfamiliar rays of bright sunshine poured through the large windows of the rooms in the House of Commons that the political team from the Sun share with ITN, Channel 4 News and the London Evening Standard.

Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun's political editor and doyen of the parliamentary lobby, had every right to feel content. For one thing, if the weather held, it would be a perfect weekend for golf, his principal passion. For another, the Prime Minister was only hours away from announcing that the general election would be held on 3 May - the date that Kavanagh had predicted, based on a steer from the highest possible source, on 20 March. It was on that day that the Sun, grateful for this early warning, nailed its colours securely to the government's mast for the second election running.

Then the phone rang. "Trevor? It's Deep Throat. There's been a snag. Usual place. Come as soon as you can."

Minutes later, he found himself in the car park underneath Downing Street. Deep Throat, as usual, was standing in heavy shadow so as not to be recognised.

"Tony's changed his mind. He can't go in May. It's the bloody farmers. I know we told you it was certain and I know this could make you look bad with the boss. He's asked me to apologise and say he hopes you both won't hold it against him. To make up for it, you can have the new date to yourself for today. He isn't even going to tell the Cabinet. It's . . ." he paused for effect and lowered his voice still further, ". . . it's 7 June."

Kavanagh sucked his teeth and remained silent for what, to Deep Throat, seemed an eternity.

"OK," he said finally. "The deal's still on. But the boss won't like it."

Soon, back in the daylight, he was on the phone to his paper. "Election off," screamed the headline in next day's issue. "Sun exclusive."

"Two scoops for the price of one," Kavanagh chuckled contentedly, as he headed home to Epsom and the links.

It may not have happened exactly like this, but - as we say when we can't establish all the details - the salient facts are not far off the mark. And they contain a central paradox. Kavanagh has been a staunch and voluble Conservative since the Thatcher years, as well as a long-time rival of Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary and former lobby correspondent of the competing Daily Mirror. Yet he has become the pivotal - though not wholly complaisant - go-between in Britain's most important political partnership, the unholy alliance between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch.

The Sun has broadly backed new Labour since Murdoch and Blair discovered their latent community of interest in the run-up to the 1997 election; but the paper's support could never be taken for granted. The European single currency - the trigger for the famous Sun headline dubbing Blair "the most dangerous man in Europe" - is a continuing divisive issue. Nor has the paper been restrained in its criticisms on law and order, asylum-seekers, the proposed European defence force and the National Health Service.

For Blair and his inner circle, including Campbell, the enthusiastic backing of Britain's bestselling tabloid is central to winning the votes in the heartlands that they need to ensure a second term. The paper was never going to switch its support to the underperforming William Hague, but a lukewarm endorsement of Labour, merely for the lack of a better alternative, would not have served Blair's purpose. He sought a forthright, unequivocal commitment.

And he got it, just after last month's Budget, in the same issue of the newspaper where Kavanagh informed his readers that 3 May was now the "official" election date. The simultaneous publication of the endorsement and the mini-scoop provided rich fodder for conspiracy theorists. To them, it was obvious what had happened: the Sun had agreed to give Blair the backing he wanted, on condition that Kavanagh would receive the first rock-solid indication of the election date. And that meant that when the Prime Minister changed his mind, the paper again had to be told first.

Kavanagh denies this: "People have got a bee in their bonnet about these two stories," he sighs. "Sometimes, when you get written about, you realise new things about journalists. You get the most amazing theories emerging which have absolutely no basis whatsoever in truth. Some of them are quite detailed, with all sorts of meetings and discussions which, as far as I'm aware, have never taken place.

"The fact is that, when we at the Sun do stories, we do them hard. We don't say 'on the one hand and on the other'. We never say 'may' when we can say 'will'. I think anyone could have written that it was definitely going to be 3 May when I did, if they'd made enough calls and inquiries. A lot of people put it in more cautious terms, but we went for it, and we were 100 per cent right at that time. Then Tony Blair went to Cumbria and things began to shift."

So was it just a question of putting in calls to the right people? "Partly," he replies, without revealing what the other part was.

Trevor Kavanagh does not look like the most powerful political journalist in Britain. His thumbnail photo peers at Sun readers nearly every day, often just across the fold from the page three nude. Can this man, with his neat white beard and soft features, be the one who writes such poisonous attacks on public figures of whom the paper disapproves, in the Sun's leader column as well as in his signed articles? Rather, you would think him, in the words of the Guardian's Michael White, "a sociology lecturer at a new university, but rather more expensively dressed".

"He always looks as though he'd be happier in the garden, potting his dahlias," affirms Simon Hoggart, the Guardian's political sketch-writer. Certainly, he is a herbivore rather than a carnivore. Unfailingly polite, even courtly, he is far removed from the popular image of the hard-bitten, hard-drinking tabloid journalist. Michael Brunson, the former political editor of ITN, who used to share a room with Kavanagh in the Commons, says: "He doesn't waste a lot of his time hanging around with the boys in the bar. He's a rather old-fashioned journalist who spends his time hitting the phones to his contacts."

Kavanagh admits to being a late developer and, at 58, is at the peak of his career. He was born in 1943 in Southall, west London, the son of an Irish upholsterer. The family moved to Surrey, and at Reigate Grammar School he achieved O-level passes in mathematics, English language and literature. "I was a John Major type," he jokes defensively.

After leaving school at 17, he worked for papers in Surrey and Hereford until, at 22, he went to Australia as an assisted immigrant. There he met his Australian wife, Jacqueline: they have two sons in their early thirties. After four years working for several news outlets (among them the Wagga-Wagga Daily Advertiser), he returned to Britain and a job on the Bristol Evening Post.

After four more years, he was back in Australia, where he joined the Murdoch organisation for the first time as a reporter on the Sydney Daily Mirror. Despatched to Canberra as the paper's political correspondent, at the time when the Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was about to be dismissed by the governor general, he became hooked on politics: "It was a fascinating baptism of fire. Almost the entire Civil Service was pro-Labour, and so were almost all the political journalists, and there I was, representing a paper which was less than enchanted with the way Whitlam was running the government." Excellent training for his future work on a paper that prides itself on attracting the scorn of the liberal intelligentsia.

In 1978, he returned to Britain, and a job on the Sun's news desk. "It was just before the winter of discontent. The whole smell and atmosphere of Britain at the time was of palpable anger. You could tell something unpleasant was happening." When Kavanagh became industrial correspondent in 1980, he could pinpoint the malaise: "The trade unions were a disgrace. Covering them at close quarters, I felt they deserved what they got in the end. Rupert Murdoch performed an enormous service to the country when he went to Wapping."

No surprise, then, that Kavanagh is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher - an enthusiasm he was able to develop when he became the Sun's political editor in 1983. He looks back on the time with nostalgia: "You knew where you were in those days. You knew that Russia was bad and America good. You knew that Labour was bad and the Tories good. That sounds a bit clumsy, but it was the stark position. You were either on one side firmly or the other. The distinctions have very much become blurred since then."

Alas, so blurred that, in 1996, he found himself having to beat the drum for a party that he had come to despise. He admits that he was against the Sun's full-scale endorsement of Labour - he is said to have written to Murdoch trying to dissuade him - but he was overruled and, as an old pro, accepted the result.

This time round, the decision has been less difficult. "We would have looked peculiar if we'd backed them wholeheartedly in 1997 and, with unemployment below a million, inflation the lowest in Europe and so on and so on - if then we'd turned round and said we want to vote for another party, which, by all measurements, is not yet ready for government."

But what about the single currency? Will that bring about a rancorous parting of the ways in a couple of years?

"It might, and it might not. Tony Blair is a very cautious politician and I'd be very surprised if he'd take a risk with a referendum unless he was certain of winning it and winning it well - and I don't see him taking a risk on that in the foreseeable future."

On this issue, Blair certainly could not count on Murdoch's and Kavanagh's support, and he knows that it will be devilishly hard to win without it. You can almost hear the knives being sharpened in the Wapping armoury. The mild-mannered Kavanagh, pining as he is for a return to the days of certainty, may already have singled out the one with the longest and most lethal blade. Farewell, ambiguity. Once again, he will know whose side he is on.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube