'Mail' likely to resist Blair's charms Blair unlikely to convince fickle Mail

Jack O'Sullivan wonders if a right-wing press stable really could bring itself to back Labour
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The Independent Online
It is extraordinary that Lord Rothermere, proprietor of Associated Newspapers, is thinking about backing Tony Blair. Traditionally his newspapers - the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard - are staunchly pro-Tory. But the Rothermeres are notoriously fickle. In 1931, Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, complained about Rothermere's attempts to oust him. Baldwin famously accused the newspaper baron of exercising "power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".

John Major would agree with Baldwin. On 4 July, the day Tory MPs decided whether to replace Mr Major with John Redwood, the Daily Mail carried a front-page leader, headlined: "Time to ditch the captain". It was, in Downing Street's eyes, an act of treachery.

It also created difficulties for the Daily Mail: having declared in the morning that Mr Major could not possibly win the next general election, the paper found by 6pm that it was stuck with him. Ever since, it has been seeking a fresh direction.

In the same leader the paper confessed that it was "not impervious to the charms of Mr Blair". This attraction was reiterated this week by Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers, who said that the titles might proffer support to Mr Blair in the next election.

This shift amounts to more than disenchantment with the Tories. The Daily Mail, which touches the heart strings of middle-class suburban Britain, reflects the views of its readers. Many are charmed by Mr Blair and like his socially conservative message which is tailored to appeal to a group whose votes could decide the next election.

They and their paper (nearly 2 million buy it daily) like the Labour leader's tough talk on crime and his championing of the family. Most tantalising is the prospect that Mr Blair could deliver what Peter Lilley, for all his right-wing rhetoric, never managed, namely reform of the welfare state.

Yet there remains a vast gulf between the values of the Daily Mail and those of Labour. The paper's hatred of unions, its unqualified pro-market ideology, its castigation of just about anyone claiming welfare benefits and its anti-immigration stance are anathema to Labour. Additionally, to back Labour, the Mail would have to accept a party that is more pro- European than Major, whose "federalism" lies at the heart of the paper's contempt for the Tories.

Insiders believe that we are seeing a flirtation, not an infatuation with Labour, at least at the Daily Mail, which is by far the most influential of the titles. One source said: "My guess is that the Mail will step back from voting for Blair. It is more likely that coverage will be fairer." Another senior source said: "We will probably be kinder to Labour and distinctly lacking in enthusiasm for Major. But we wouldn't abandon the Tories. We'd do our duty."

But the more moderate Evening Standard, pro-European and so far pro- Major, could well break ranks. Mr Blair still has plenty to play for.

How their policies compare

Tony Blair

The

economy

Low inflation, jobs and training for young and long-term unemployed. Unclear on competition and markets. Regulation not nationalisation.

Tax

Blair: Windfall tax on utilities. Priority tax cut: halve VAT on fuel. No public position on income tax.

Welfare

Cut benefits bill by reducing numbers unemployed. Incentives to get jobless back to work: in-work benefits, job subsidies to private employers, training benefits. Might tax child benefit. Minimum pension guarantee. Minimum wage.

Europe

Pro-Europe. Ambivalent on single currency: Blair says it could be right if the circumstances are right. Pro-social chapter. Favours incorporation of European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Crime

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Legislation to curb noisy neighbours. Anti -squeegie merchants. More police on the streets. Increased victim support.

Capital

punishment

Opposed

NHS

Keep purchaser-provider split, but replace GP-fundholding with collective purchasing by GPs

Education

Higher standards. Class sizes less than 30 for 5-7 year olds. Nursery places for 3- and 4- year-olds. Tougher discipline. Stricter monitoring and appointment criteria for heads. GM schools become foundation schools, retaining autonomy from local authorities.

Political

reform

Scottish and Welsh devolution, reform of Lords, referendum on PR.

Northern

Ireland

Less pro-nationalist than his predecessors. Bipartisan approach to peace process.

Daily Mail

The economy

Anti-inflation. Wants policies to restore the "feel good factor". Pro-competition: attacked Blair's deal with BT. Hates trade unions.

Tax

Sympathetic with windfall tax. Anti-fat cat. Champions income tax cuts.

Welfare

Attacks Peter Lilley for failing to cut ballooning social security bill. Opposed to feckless poor, benefit scroungers, single mums jumping council house queues, immigrants on the dole. Anti-minimum wage. Pro-benefits encouraging people back to work and tax on child benefit. Likes Blair's pro-family agenda

Europe

Biggest difference with Labour. Vitriolic against all things European, particularly single currency. But careful to stop short of calling for withdrawal from European Union or European Convention.

Crime

Draconian on crime. Not too worried about the causes of crime. Wants plenty of short, sharp shocks, longer sentences, key thrown away etc.

Capital punishment

Sympathetic. Time running out for mercy.

NHS

Pro-NHS market. Agrees with John Redwood that bureaucrats have hijacked the NHS reforms. Wants to save small hospitals: give public what they want.

Education

Pro-Government on education reforms. Pro-private education. Unsure whether Blairist policy is quasi-Thatcherite or traditional basher of private and selective education.

Political reform

Pro-Union. Regards whole reform package as barmy

Northern Ireland

Backs Major, but concerned about "concessions" to the IRA for no return. Approaching point where it thinks "enough is enough"

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