The tantalising prospect that Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and Evening Standard, could support Labour in the next general election was floated publicly for the first time yesterday by Sir David English, the company's chairman.
Sir David reveals in the Spectator that the papers' proprietor, Lord Rothermere, acknowledged this week that an endorsement of Tony Blair was "not impossible" . Lord Rothermere's remark followed a two hour private meeting with the Labour leader. Sir David continues that "we may or may not" proffer support to Mr Blair and that it is "too early to say".
The tentative hints came the day after the Murdoch press, traditionally the bane of Labour's electoral prospects, warmly greeted Mr Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton.
The notion that the Daily Mail could for the first time forsake its Tory heritage for New Labour comes in a conference diary from Brighton in which he describes several lunches with the Labour leader. Sir David says these have been "much more fun" than when "current members of the Government came gloomily to dine".
Sir David says that Mr Blair had acknowledged in conversation "what we [Associated] had been through" when "we talked about trade unions and what they had done to kill the newspaper industry", and adds: "He indicated quite clearly that, if in power, the position would not be restored to the point where we would have to face that again."
He describes a conversation about welfare in which Mr Blair made it clear that he shared the concern of the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, about the welfare and social costs of single mothers. In contrast to both the late John Smith and John Major - both of whom had offered an "almost identical. . . knee-jerk, politically correct dismissal of this subject" in similar conversations, Mr Blair spoke "passionately about how the present unquestioning acceptance of this situation was. . . betraying a generation of children".
Mr Blair had told Associated executives "you may find I am the only one who has the will" to reform the welfare state. Sir David says a "thoughtful silence ensued" among colleagues after this remark.
Sir David says that "we are not without scepticism towards the present government" and adds: "We feel we must continue our dialogue with Tony Blair to the point where we can accurately reflect our opinion of him come the election; whether to attack him, remain neutral or even endorse him."