Election '97: Branson and Murdoch stay on the fence

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The Independent Online
Two of the world's shrewdest businessmen hedged their bets last night over whose side to be on as the final countdown to the general election began.

Rupert Murdoch was backing both horses through his Sunday newspapers, with the News of the World declaring "We back Blair" and the Sunday Times supporting the Tories "warts and all". Meanwhile, Richard Branson shared a very public Virgin train ride with Tony Blair but stopped short of a full endorsement of new Labour - pausing to praise Tory privatisation of the railways.

The News of the World, which has backed the Conservatives in the last three general elections, today carries a strongly-worded front page editorial attacking John Major's "weakness" which had "bred nationwide contempt for a man who is simply incapable of being Prime Minister".

Following in the wake of its stablemate, The Sun, it exhorts its readers to "remember the fiasco of Mad Cow Disease, the shabby dealings over Gulf War Syndrome, the inhumanity of the Child Support Agency, the rise in violent crime, the mismanagement in the prisons."

Peter Mandelson, Labour's election campaign manager, was clearly delighted. "This is a tremendous boost for us," he said. "It comes at the end of a long campaign when all the issues have been thoroughly debated and the paper has been able to listen to its readers. It means all the more for that."

In stark contrast, today's Sunday Times leader says the "only glimmer of hope" for Britain "is that if Mr Major were to win against the odds this time, he would have the chance to even scores and crush the factionalism that has dogged him". It concludes: "Only the Tories, warts and all, offer the prospect of lasting improvement."

Meanwhile, if Richard Branson's photo-opportunity with the Labour leader yesterday, when they shared a train ride from London's Euston station, raised hopes that he would declare himself for Mr Blair, the Virgin chief executive baulked at the final fence - and then sat firmly on it. He refused to reveal how he would vote, saying: "Business people should stay business people as much as possible."