New Labour, new sales figures?

Conventional wisdom says national newspapers do best when the party they support is out of power - but maybe the rules are about to change.

Pity poor Michael Gove, a leader writer on The Times who thought he was setting himself up nicely for the future when, a few years back, he penned a hymn of praise for Michael Portillo which his publishers sought to pass off as a probing biography.

This young anglicised Scot, a strident Euro-sceptic, must have been almost as gutted as his ideological idol when the Enfield Southgate result came through in the early hours of Friday morning. His gentle hagiography, entitled Michael Portillo: the Future of the Tory Right, is probably now generating much mocking laughter in every bargain bookstore in the land.

Michael Gove wasn't the only one feeling lousy on Friday morning. Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph and son of the former chancellor, could not disguise his sense of dejection at an election bash thrown by his paper's sister title. A colleague shouted over as he prepared to leave: "Good night, Dominic." "No, it's not a good night," he snapped back.

This is too cruel. We must seek to understand the sense of disorientation which these right-wing scribes must be experiencing as they lie down in a darkened room and struggle to come to terms with the scale of the Conservatives' election defeat.

In the past, right-wing propagandists could have consoled themselves with the knowledge that the Tory press tends to improve its popularity when it has a Labour government to rail against. But there is no guarantee that this theory will hold true under Tony Blair.

The effect of 18 years of Conservative Party rule has been anything but conservative, not least in national newspapers. While young-fogey opinion- peddlers fondly believed that they were playing their part in preserving the sovereignty of the British state from the likes of Jacques Delors, something more profound was being done to the British press by truly powerful external forces.

The death of Fleet Street, triggered by Rupert Murdoch's crushing of the print unions at Fortress Wapping, led to the commodification of news values into entertainment and the dumbing-down of readers by relentless promotion of the lowest common denominator. The broadsheets blurred with the tabloids and became broadloids and the public became much more promiscuous at the newstands.

Jeremy Tunstall, Professor of Sociology at City University, London, and author of Newspaper Power, a major study of the new national press in Britain, does not believe the incoming Blair government will be good news for the Tory press. "I doubt whether politics now sells most papers," he said.

"Circulation managers tell me that it's strong promotions, usually backed by a TV advertising blitz, which shifts newspapers off the newstands. Offer the public a free video or a cheap flight and they'll be flocking to the newsagents."

Professor Tunstall is not at all impressed by a piece of research published last week which suggested that pro-Conservative papers are likely to thrive under the new Labour government.

Jim Chisholm, a media consultant who has advised many leading newspaper publishers on their strategy, suggested that far from lamenting the demise of John Major, the editors of the traditional Tory titles (the Telegraph, Times, Express and Mail) should perhaps be relishing the fact that they can now let rip at a government they truly oppose. "Newspapers do best in opposition and readers appreciate that. They want their newspaper to question authority on their behalf," Mr Chisholm argued, adding: "This is one reason why the Express has done so badly in recent years."

It is true that the Express cheered Margaret Thatcher to the rafters during her time in N0 10 and remained loyal to John Major when others - notably its arch-rival, the Mail - had distanced itself. But it would be naive to suggest that the Mail has surged ahead of the Express in circulation terms simply because of its political posture.

The Mail has exuded much more flair in every department. Its content and design have been superior for some considerable time, which is why the Express turned to a Mail man, Richard Addis, to try to restore its fortunes. It has adopted a less pandering style since being taken over by the Labour-supporting peer Lord Hollick.

The sheer scale of Labour's electoral triumph has placed pro-Conservative papers in a quandary. New Labour is not Old Labour. The denizens of Middle England did not do as expected in the secrecy of the polling booths, and it would seem foolish to presume that they will revert to stereotype at the newstands.

This was brought home at an early stage in the election camapign, when Tory tabloids and broadsheets tried to engage in some good old-fashioned union-bashing. But they, like the Conservatives' strategists, were forced to abandon this tack when it quickly became apparent that this crude tactic wasn't striking a chord among voters - or their readers.

Thus newspaper editors who think they will expand their readership simply by pouring bile upon the incoming Blair government may find it backfires badly. In the short term, of course, many Tory commentators will be inclined to concentrate on the Conservative leadership contest and portray it as the Tories' own referendum on the single currency. Kenneth Clarke, the first to declare his candidature, recognises that danger, stating on Breakfast With Frost yesterday: "We mustn't allow zealots in the party and zealots in the press to turn the whole thing into a pro- or anti-Europe affair." Michael Portillo, who is now out of the race, agrees that it could be a mistake for the Tory party - and presumably the Tory press - to go down that road. He told The Sunday Telegraph yesterday: "For the moment the fine detail of Conservative policy on any issue is not going to be what drives the country."

Professor Tunstall believes that the less partisan quality papers will receive a short-term boost from the arrival of a new government. "In the next couple of weeks, and maybe months, people will turn to the heavies for an in-depth analysis of what is going to happen under Tony Blair," he said.

There are already indications that this is happening. On Friday sales of all the broadsheets - especially but not exclusively The Independent - rose sharply.

This came as a relief to circulation managers after a long and tedious election campaign which did little for newspaper sales. The battle had been won and lost long before Major named the date, and nothing the papers did could inject theatre and drama into the exercise.

But power has changed hands in such a dramatic fashion and the new government is such an unknown prospect that it would be a poor paper which failed to capitalise upon this. The real story starts nown

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