Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Rupert Murdoch to back Tories"

The joke doing the rounds in the bars of Westminster last week was: "Why should Rupert Murdoch tell the BBC that he's thinking of backing the Tories when most of us think he already is?"

What the media mogul said, however, should be taken seriously - and would have been at No 10. Tony Blair has spent an obscene amount of time ingratiating himself with Murdoch. He has gone out of his way to ensure that the Murdoch media empire is not only protected but able to expand. In return, Murdoch's papers - the Sun, Times, News of the World and Sunday Times - have all backed Blair. That no other country in the free world would allow one man to own all these titles seems lost on Blair. If he was worried about these papers' support, he should have used his huge Commons majority to change the law to allow ownership of only one title. That would have been the most popular policy among Labour MPs.

Blair didn't need to sell his soul to the devil. The Sun won't back the Tories as long as they remain unpopular. The paper has to stay popular and in touch with its readers, otherwise no one would buy it. That's why it backed Blair.

When Gordon Brown "let it be known" that Labour would not cough up the dosh for a new royal yacht, the Sun attacked him until its own survey showed that 80 per cent of readers agreed with the then shadow chancellor. The yacht then "had to be scrapped", according to the Sun.

Murdoch may have a political editor who wants to support the Tories, but as long as they have no chance of winning a general election - and they haven't under Michael Howard - his "popular" titles will continue to back the winner.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the affair