Faded cheerleader of the Tories tilts towards Labour

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A tilt towards Labour and more even-handed political coverage are being encouraged at the Daily Express, previously the most slavish supporter of the Tory cause. Yesterday, sources said there had been a change in the "taste", or culture, of the paper's political coverage, giving Labour a much fairer crack of the whip over recent weeks.

One well-placed source said the paper was drawing attention to, and approving of, "the new, tough Blair". But an extra touch had been introduced by the new editor, Richard Addis: a more right-wing approach to the Conservatives, which means a more critical stance towards John Major. "That means that while Blair is being portrayed as the tough guy, Major has become the wimp," the source said.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the relationship between proprietors, or manage- ment, and editors of papers, it is difficult to pin down the cause of the change in the paper's stance.

Some insiders argue that while there is no question of it backing Labour at the election, Express readership has become too skewed towards Tory supporters. The latest Mori analysis, for April-June, suggests just over half of Express readers are Conservative, compared with 45 per cent for the Daily Mail. More remarkably, the figures say, 38 per cent of Daily Mail readers are Labour, compared with a third of Express readers.

Some Express executives have said they want the Labour proportion lifted. Whether that can be done by changing the tone of a paper's political coverage is an open question. It is also possible the reason is being given as an excuse for a politically motivated change by the new management following the merger between United News and Media with Lord Hollick's MAI in February.

At the time, analysts were sceptical that UNM's Lord Stevens, an out- and-out Conservative, would win a power struggle with the Labour peer. So it has proved. In May, Lord Hollick appointed Stephen Grabiner, managing director of the Telegraph group, to the same position at the Express. His background is in marketing and accountancy, and his brief was to find ways of restructuring the Daily Express and Sunday Express, whose circulation had plummeted since the 1970s.

He called in Collinson Grant, a Manchester-based management consultancy, who are thought to have recommended that the two papers merge to form either a full, seven-day operation or a five-and-two-day operation.

Current speculation is that Sue Douglas, Sunday Express editor, will lose out in the power struggle, and that Mr Addis will be left in overall charge, with his even-handed approach to Labour.

That result could be guaranteed by reports that Lord Hollick will only agree to spend money on critical promotion of the papers if he is convinced the "product" is right.