Former editor is Hague's new hope

The media: Tories target former `Mail on Sunday' chief to help revive fortunes as gays find a new voice in the press

UNTIL RECENTLY, he spun news to Middle England. Now Jonathan Holborow is set to join the fight to sell William Hague to the middle classes.

The leader of the Conservative Party is expected to hire the former editor of the Mail on Sunday as his pounds 150,000-a-year communications director. His task will be to spin positive stories directly to newspaper editors.

Mr Holborow is seen by Tory leaders as having a feel for the middle classes after his success in adding more than 300,000 to the sales of the Mail on Sunday in his six years at the helm.

The Charterhouse old boy left the newspaper last month, claiming to be taking early retirement. He had taken the title from 1.93 million sales in 1992 to more than 2.2 million a week, outstripping the Sunday Express - the one-time bible of the Tory petit bourgeoisie.

Holborow wears his public school education on his sleeve and is described by former staff at the paper as brusque and no-nonsense. "He had a demanding style and was not adverse to a bit of humiliation," says one. "It is safe to say he was not universally loved by his staff."

His fortunes at the Mail on Sunday were always in doubt after he offered a fulsome front-page apology to the actress Brooke Shields this year after the newspaper wrongly reported that she had been searched for drugs by police.

Mail on Sunday sources said Mr Holborow has a "gut instinct" for issues which affect middle-class voters, which he learnt at the knee of Sir David English, the recently deceased editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers. Mr Holborow, 55, spent almost his entire journalistic career working under English at Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, starting in Manchester in 1967. English's political support for Margaret Thatcher helped to define the politics of the Eighties.

However, others demur. "He's not got sensitive political antennae. He's not really someone who has the long term vision," said one ex-colleague.

"He thinks he has great political instinct, but he's not really a political animal," said another.

The appointment, which is expected to be confirmed in the next few days, underlines anxiety in the Hague camp about the Tories failure to show any improvement in opinion polls.

Mr Holborow is wanted by Mr Hague to spearhead a shake-up of the party's press operation at Conservative Central Office, in Smith Square. The move threatens to sideline Gregor Mackay, Mr Hague's press officer, but sources at Central Office said he would remain in place while the press team reports to Mr Holborow as the head of communications.

Some insiders privately believe it smacks of panic before next year's European elections.

Mr Holborow will not be asked to replicate the role of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, in rebuilding the Opposition's image. The day-to-day task of dealing with the press and running a rebuttal operation to stop negative reports is likely to be handed to a former journalist. There was speculation at Westminster last night that Mr Hague was seeking to recruit a Times journalist, Nicholas Wood, for that task.

Staff at Smith Square would like to move to purpose-built offices like Labour, but having recently refurbished their war room the Tories lack the resources to move before the next election. They are likely to establish a rebuttal unit and have borrowed from Labour by creating a media monitoring unit.

With Michael Portillo waiting in the wings to strike, Mr Hague knows his leadership will come under threat if the Tories fail to make an impact in the local elections and the European elections next year.

"The European elections are a fairly key point in the electoral cycle and the middle classes are the key swing voters. The Mail on Sunday was seen as more evenly divided between Labour and Tory supporters and that is the target audience that we have to connect with," said a shadow ministerial source.

So far, the Tories poll standing has remained resolutely at rock bottom. Shadow ministers have privately discussed what they can do to raise the party's profile, and make more impact on the Government.

They were furious at the way the party conference was allowed to be dominated by the feuds over Europe, and held an angry post-mortem in the Shadow Cabinet as soon as they returned to Westminster.

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