Viscount Rothermere, the chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, has warned the Conservative Party that it cannot take for granted the support of the group's main newspaper at the general election.
In his first-ever interview, Lord Rothermere said the Daily Mail would back whichever party showed itself to be most supportive of the middle classes and said he had not been impressed by Michael Howard's early showing.
Lord Rothermere said: "The Conservatives do not have a God-given right to expect the loyalty of the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail supports the middle class of this country and if the middle class of this country are better supported by another political party and feels that way then I am sure that Paul [Dacre, the newspaper's editor-in-chief] would make the corresponding decision."
The comments - made today in an interview with The Independent's new supplement, MediaWeekly - coincide with the opening of the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Lord Rothermere also expressed admiration for the Prime Minister and his wife. "I enjoy the company of Tony Blair and Cherie and respect them tremendously as individuals for what they have accomplished with their lives. They are remarkable people as are other members of the Government," he said.
The Daily Mail's chairman said he also admired Mr Howard as "a very considerable politician" but expressed concern about the former home secretary's record as Tory leader. "I don't think he is doing as good a job as many people hoped he would ... but I think there is a long time to run and he may come through," he said. "I think he has to work on his communications skills with the public."
Lord Rothermere was complimentary about his rival Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers, despite the long-running and personal battle between the two groups. He said: "I think Richard Desmond is a very clever man. I don't believe he ever does anything emotionally. I think there is always a reason. His emotion over us and the Daily Mail is purely in order to garner support from our enemies."
But the Daily Mail's owner said he believed Mr Desmond, who formerly had a number of pornographic titles in his publishing stable, would not have been allowed to take ownership of Express Newspapers if he had been subjected to the same stringent application of the public-interest test that debarred a pornographer, David Sullivan, from owning the Bristol Evening Post. He said he believed Mr Desmond's donation to Labour was "a factor" in the way the Government dealt with the issue. "I personally believe the Government has taken a much more relaxed view ... when evaluating whether Richard Desmond could own the Express or not," he said.