As morale and discipline inside the Conservative parliamentary party continues to unravel, there is a belief that the right-wing media, far from fulfilling its old role as a flying buttress, supporting it from the outside, is busy fomenting rebellion and flirting with the challenger party, Reform UK. At the most extreme, some Tories see the emergence of an increasingly powerful British alt-right.
“Yes, there is paranoia inside Downing Street about what they’re up to – and, frankly, that isn’t stupid.” A well-placed supporter of the Prime Minister is talking about what used to be called the Conservative media, notably the former house organ, the Daily Telegraph – which is facing an Abu Dhabi-backed takeover bid – and the upstart broadcaster GB News.
The origins of Rishi Sunak’s problems go back a long way, but the recent story starts on the evening of Sunday 14 January. The Telegraph was leading on an opinion poll forecasting the biggest collapse in the Tory vote since 1906, with Keir Starmer’s Labour Party projected to gain a landslide majority of 120 – or, as the headline bluntly put it, “Tories facing 1997-style wipeout”.
Often, in political journalism, you need to check the photograph to be sure of the intention of the words: in this case the paper splashed with a picture of a sweaty-looking Prime Minister apparently sucking on a lemon. But, lest there be a scintilla of doubt, David (Lord) Frost, the Boris Johnson-era minister and trenchant critic of Sunak, wrote about the “stunningly awful” numbers and noted that he had been “involved in shaping and analysing” the survey – an analysis the polling company, YouGov, then took issue with.
Frost, fronting an organisation calling itself the “Conservative Britain Alliance” – which appears to be a paper fig leaf for a group of Tory donors (or perhaps just one; Peter Cruddas is muttered about) – argued that the Tories had to be much tougher on immigration to avoid a potential “extinction event” at the hands of Reform UK.
At this point, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, there has been a slew of polls for many months all saying roughly the same thing about Tory weakness – and if the Telegraph’s attack was intended to boost right-wing rebels trying to reshape Sunak’s Rwanda Bill, then it failed absolutely. The so-called Spartans took one look at the Commons forces grouped against them and scurried back down the hill in different directions as fast as their legs could carry them.
But the Telegraph assault was about more than one vote in the House of Commons. It was based on an unusually large and detailed polling sample, which could be broken down constituency by constituency. That makes it particularly corrosive at a time when Conservative MPs, including cabinet ministers, are speculating on the likelihood of their personal defeats. For an already demoralised, weary parliamentary group, it could hardly have been more depressing or undermining.
Tories have faced hostility from the “Tory media” before, of course. During the Brexit referendum in 2016 David Cameron and George Osborne were bewildered to find themselves on the wrong side of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun.
Taking the Telegraph by itself, think of its treatment of John Major during the Maastricht debates; or the impact on leading Conservatives of its MPs’ expenses scandal coverage in 2009; or, more recently, its exposé of Matt Hancock, health minister during the pandemic. One insider says there is no conspiracy against Sunak: the Telegraph has a long and admirable record of delighting in “mayhem and mischief”.
What could make this time different, however, is that Reform UK is a genuine threat to the Tories’ national hopes. Under its leader, Richard Tice, it is a party whose instincts on migration and attacks chime strongly with many disillusioned Conservative activists, people who find Sunak hard to warm to. Reform is up to around 13 per cent in the polls – and rising. And that is before Nigel Farage enters the fray. Tice tells me: “It is inconceivable to me that he is going to want to see this election out from the touchline.”
If Farage returns “as striker”, Reform hopes to be up at around 18 or 19 per cent in the polls by Easter and then, get this, to be level with the Conservatives by the summer – at which point panicking Tory MPs may start defecting. In an election, Reform, which supports proportional representation, does not expect to win many seats under the first-past-the-post system, but wants the Tories to face “a proper explosion or extinction-level event” – the same language as used by Frost.
What is really going on here? What makes the Telegraph’s positioning odd is that it comes at a critical point in an attempted takeover of the title by RedBird IMI, a joint venture between a US private equity firm and the investment vehicle for Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, owner of Manchester City football club.
The Telegraph Media Group (TMG) was bought by the Barclay family from the Canadian businessman Conrad Black in 2004 for £665m, in part funded by a Bank of Scotland (now part of Lloyds) loan. Though TMG remains profitable, by 2018 its valuation had fallen by nearly £600m, to £164.9m. But the debt did not shrink in the same way, and in 2023 stood at £1.2bn. In June that year, Lloyds, unable to recoup what it was owed, took control of TMG and put it up for sale. In December RedBird IMI helped to pay off the Barclays’ debt, and thereby gained what it claims is a deciding influence over the company and its future ownership.
The prospective takeover by RedBird is loathed and publicly campaigned against by the newspaper’s senior editorial staff, such as the columnist and former editor Charles Moore. For them, ownership by the sovereign wealth fund of a state that has no democratic institutions or formal commitment to free speech would be crossing a dangerous line. Even if their mouths were stuffed with gold, many executives at TMG would leave as soon as the bid went through.
With the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, awaiting an Ofcom report on the takeover and expected to announce a “Phase 2” public-interest investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority – something which ends more than 70 per cent of referred transactions – the bid is on a knife edge.
With both the Telegraph and its sister magazine the Spectator in ownership limbo, Tories are splitting in both directions. Thatcher-era ministers – Lords Heseltine, Baker and Waldegrave – have come out against the Sheikh. But a former chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, is working with the Emiratis, trying to recruit other leading party figures to an advisory board, so far with little success. Another Tory (and former editor of the Evening Standard), George Osborne, is also involved; the investment bank Robey Warshaw, where Osborne is a partner, is advising RedBird on the deal.
Osborne’s role led to a public rebuke from another former editor of the Evening Standard, David Cameron’s sister-in-law Emily Sheffield, who took to X to tweet: “No depths? A former chancellor aiding a state to buy one of our media institutions? George Osborne, there is a precedent being set here and you know it. Principles do matter.”
So why would a newspaper that depends on government intervention to stave off an unwelcome suitor go out of its way to whack the Prime Minister so hard across the chops? This is less biting the hand that feeds it, more hacking off a protective arm.
Brave? You might say so.
The answer lies in the personalities of the journalists involved, and the new way daily newspaper and online journalism operates. Traditionally, Telegraph editors were very much part of the Tory party’s grander social networks – clubs at lunchtime and in the evening, social weekends with cabinet ministers, honours when they retired.
Chris Evans, in charge of the Telegraph, is not like that. He is a hard-driving news man. Like Tony Gallagher at the Times and Ben Taylor at the Sunday Times, he learned his trade in Paul Dacre’s hot and noisy kitchen at the Daily Mail. The Dacre diaspora (arguably, he has more influence today than when he was editing the Daily Mail directly) are ferociously hard-working, technically hands-on journalists who tend to disdain political connections or friendships. A story told of Evans, which may be a myth but contains a kernel of truth, is that his wife once brought their children into the centre of the newsroom to say goodnight – as otherwise he wouldn’t see them.
Unlike previous generations, the new editors work very heavily from data, metrics and audience analysis. One Telegraph hand tells me: “The payroll model is about driving subscription numbers back up; you know what the readers feel and you have to tap in to it.”
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This is a style of editing much less susceptible to a gin and tonic at the Carlton club. If Telegraph readers are clustering around an interview with Tice or focus particularly heavily on stories about the weakness of Sunak’s migration measures, that is increasingly what matters. Letters and emails to the paper are consistently hostile to the Tory centre left.
Dacre admires Evans’s handling of the Telegraph. A mark of favour from the capo is to be invited to the rugby at Twickenham, and for lunch in the car park, served from the boot of the Dacre auto. Evans has been a regular invitee. This isn’t entirely irrelevant. For the question for No 10 is: if the RedBird bid is to fail, who is to win? Someone must.
And it might be Lord Rothermere. The Mail proprietor has reflected publicly on the “enormous potential” of the Telegraph, which would make a neat fit with his current titles. Many of its journalists would welcome him with relief; nor is he a Reform UK man. But added to his already powerful position – ownership of the Mail group, the Metro, the i – this would give Rothermere extraordinary influence over the outcome of the next Tory leadership campaign, and the direction of the party.
Some Conservatives believe this would simply be too much media power in a single hand, driving the Tories even further to the right. But since the competition issues would probably linger until after the general election, and would be called in by a Labour government, Rothermere may yet tire of the chase.
Similar questions arise with another homegrown possible bidder, Paul Marshall, the hedge-fund tycoon, one-time Liberal Democrat and then Brexit backer. A major philanthropist in education, Marshall wants political influence and his is growing, fast. He owns UnHerd, the post-liberal website that focuses on culture war issues; and, jointly, GB News, in which he holds a 41 per cent stake. Neither of these outfits are knee-jerk Tory supporters.
Indeed, inside GB News, there has been a lively debate about whether openly to support Reform UK. Both Farage and Tice have been big figures on the channel – though the new political editor of GB News, Christopher Hope, formerly of the Telegraph, gave Tice a notably combative interview recently.
GB News may be losing money, but with Marshall and its other substantial shareholder, the Legatum investment group, it has deep pockets, big ambitions and growing influence on conservative politics, hiring hard-right MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson as broadcasters. There has been an intense struggle inside the organisation between would-be Tucker Carlson alt-right loudmouths and professional right-of-centre journalists, with the latter group now in the ascendant. But professional doesn’t mean biddable: an insider tells me: “We know the Tories are going to lose the election and there is little love here for Rishi Sunak.”
He probably returns the favour, but No 10 now acknowledges the potency of GB News and, following a visit to Downing Street from its CEO Angelos Frangopoulos, is now providing Tory ministers for its news programmes – perhaps through gritted teeth.
There has been speculation that the Murdochs’ News UK has now made two separate approaches about acquiring GB News; their existing station TalkTV would presumably fold with GB News into a single operation. Marshall has no need to sell his stake, and there seems to be a new funding round on the way.
If Marshall took the Telegraph he, like Rothermere, would be in a position of remarkable power in shaping the future of right-wing politics in Britain – and he is not by any stretch of the imagination a traditional Conservative. After his support for Brexit, one cabinet minister got in touch to suggest Marshall might help fund his campaign in the forthcoming election, only to receive an impeccably polite reply pointing out: “I should remind you that I’m a member of the Liberal party.”
Those who work with him say that he is not an extremist but is obsessed by the importance of pluralism. Journalists on the Telegraph acknowledge that Marshall wants political influence and prefer him to the Emiratis, but ask whether he has the resources and experience to be a successful proprietor of the 169-year-old newspaper.
The Murdoch empire, meanwhile, is acting in a thoroughly traditional way – that is, working out where political power is moving, and moving with it. Although journalists on the Sun in particular loathe Keir Starmer for his prosecution of the phone-hacking scandal, it appears some kind of deal has been quietly negotiated with Labour. (Before Christmas Starmer enjoyed a private dinner with Sun executives at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair.)
Murdoch people are particularly keen that Starmer, following gently favourable coverage from the Times, drops any revival of plans to investigate relations between journalism and the police, the so-called Leveson 2. One leading former Tory cabinet minister responds icily that, “The Murdoch empire has always been as transactional as an Indian souk.” But if Sunak’s Downing Street can no longer rely on News UK, TMG, GB News, or the leading right-wing websites, you can understand why some figures there are in despair about the media landscape ahead of the election.
This is not, however, in the end, a story of conspiracy. It is about loss of political authority, and how that becomes irretrievable, and about changes in the British media ecosystem. More data-driven business models reflect more quickly the views of disaffected voters, looping back to editorial decisions. Cross-platform ownership by individuals who have no traditional party loyalty is rising. Angry right-wing voters now have a lot of choice. And media owners want winners.
For moderate Tories the consequences look serious. A veteran Conservative politician reflects that “we have never seen a right-wing media so powerful, and also so hostile to the party”. After the election, he predicts it will “attempt to control the leadership battle and militate in favour of the lunatics – Braverman, Badenoch and the younger ones. The parliamentary party will gravitate towards the more sensible ones and the party in the country will follow the new media in wanting to put in place an authoritarian right-wing populist leader.” But, he says, “that person will come back to face the support of only a minority of the parliamentary party. We have been here before.”
The Tory leadership contenders, meanwhile, do not want to take over from Sunak so soon, lest they find themselves contaminated by electoral defeat. According to one Commons source, Kemi Badenoch was genuinely concerned that the Prime Minister might lose the vote on the third reading of the Rwanda Bill because she didn’t want a premature leadership contest or early general election. She was overheard observing that “Rishi has got to own the defeat”. Paranoia in Downing Street is, as I say, reasonable: but the problems are not only ones of media ownership.
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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars