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New Labour's old enemies are back

The hard-won support of the Tory press is finally cracking. Has Tony Blair given them the fuel they need to revert to type?

A RATHER tense and embarrassing confrontation took place recently between the Prime Minister and the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. In euphoric mood after his speech to the Labour Party conference, Mr Blair invited Mr Dacre for a private chat.

A RATHER tense and embarrassing confrontation took place recently between the Prime Minister and the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. In euphoric mood after his speech to the Labour Party conference, Mr Blair invited Mr Dacre for a private chat.

Before he could begin the small talk, the Prime Minister was set upon by a furious Dacre, who repeatedly demanded an apology. His complaint was over the implication in Tony Blair's speech that all Conservatives bore some responsibility for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Dacre, a staunch Conservative despite his paper's espousal of some aspects of Blairism, felt, not unreasonably, that his paper had been brave enough to name Lawrence's alleged killers and had campaigned to have them brought to justice.

He didn't get his apology, and the meeting was said to be a frosty one. But the Mail is not alone in experiencing a cooling of the mutual flirtation between right-wing press and Labour. Indeed, a definite if somewhat haphazard realignment of the way the national press is distributing its favours is taking place. And coverage of the two main party conferences saw this crystallised.

Blair has his own privately strongly-held views about the press. He and Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, have gone to great lengths to woo Conservative columnists and newspapers. But talking to those close to Blair, it becomes apparent that he does not feel he has been enjoying a good press.

Indeed, Blair is much happier with the European press, which has lauded him as a truly modern left-of-centre leader, and has discussed and praised The Third Way. The British press, he concludes - and again, not totally without justification - shies away from real intellectual examination of the New Labour philosophy.

Relations between the Telegraph and Number 10 are certainly at a low point. And it is no coincidence that Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black has been summoned to Number 10 for a private meeting with the Prime Minister.

But across the national press a re-think of political sympathies is happening. New Labour must have known it could not hope to keep the Daily Mail on-side for the whole parliament. Paul Dacre has never been as enthusiastic about Blair as his star columnists Paul Johnson and Simon Heffer or his erstwhile proprietor, the late Lord Rothermere. Blair's conference speech gave Dacre the excuse he needed to break ranks.

The end of the conference was marked by a piece from the Mail's political editor, David Hughes, headlined: "The week when Labour finally spun out of control." In case any readers turned the page too quickly there was Simon Heffer a few pages later, writing about "a sneering, petulant conference that has done Labour's public image no favours at all..."

The Sun, doubtless after some terse transatlantic phone calls from Rupert Murdoch to editor David Yelland, condemned Blair for espousing the euro. Indeed the fate of the pound was the only part of Blair's speech the Sun seemed to care about. The next week, columnist Richard Littlejohn led his page during Conservative party conference with a piece headlined "At last here's a real people's politician." The politician in question was the one the Sun cartoonist had formerly drawn hanging upside down in the parrot's cage - William Hague.

According to Littlejohn, Hague "spoke for Britain. Not the Guardian-reading, polenta-munching, euro-loving, history-hating, public-spending, outreach-co-ordinating, New Labour elite, but ordinary, hard-working, tax-paying, car-owning, home-loving, small-saving, patriotic, family men and women."

And thus, in an outburst of alliterative passion, does one relationship end and another begin. A senior Conservative party source says the Sun's change of heart was not expected; it might well not last; but the Tories are certainly enjoying it.

As it happens, even Guardian readers are feeling a little confused at present. The paper that had a luke-warm attitude to Blair is now on heat. The New Labour hierarchy has had a jaundiced view of The Guardian since it published a leader last year urging support for the anti-Blair slate at the NEC elections, and relations have been extremely cool since with senior Labour politicians slating the paper. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger knew that the lack of close contact has affected the paper's political coverage; and the signing of political writer Kevin McGuire from the Mirror signals a change of heart. One does wonder though whether any political realignment can justify such a sycophantic headline as appeared over Polly Toynbee's conference appraisal: "Morale is sky high."

If the Guardian is drooling to get a foot back in the New Labour camp, the Telegraph is more than happy to remain outside, pedalling a right-wing agenda that owes more to editor Charles Moore's personal beliefs than any clear links to Hague's Conservative Party.

Moore is emerging as the most overtly and publicly political of any national paper editor. The editor-activist has in recent weeks addressed a rally in Belfast opposed to Chris Patten's proposed reforms of the RUC. In Bournemouth he was on the countryside march protesting against Labour's threat to fox hunting. The paper has reflected these concerns, not least with a Save the RUC campaign.

However, Moore's hiring of Rachel Sylvester, the young Independent on Sunday political editor, to be his assistant editor (politics) above the much respected and long serving Telegraph political editor George Jones, shows that he is aware of the need to have someone known to be close to the Blairites.

But Moore's own remarks about New Labour in a recent interview show there is no sign of a rapprochement. He said: "Too many right-wing newspapers are power-worshippers, so they suck up to whoever is boss. They allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that Blair was somehow on the side of what they believe in. That's because he's good at flattery and seemed like a winner, and they like winners... I do think Blair is very arrogant and I don't think he has any understanding about the restraints of the constitution."

The right-wing newspapers are no longer so attracted to a winner. But that still leaves what may be the most intriguing case of all: Lord Hollick's Express Newspapers.

No longer in Blair's inner circle, no longer wanted as a special adviser to Margaret Beckett, Lord Hollick's affection towards New Labour has dimmed. Part of the falling out can be explained by the fact that Hollick has television interests; and along with all commercial television owners he is furious at the government appointed Gavyn Davies committee's endorsement of a digital levy. There has also been disillusion in Downing Street over Hollick's masterminding of the Britain in Europe campaign which launches later this week.

Such is the extent of his disillusion with the party that when a recent article in The Observer described the Express as the voice of New Labour, a furious Lord Hollick tried to obtain an Observer executive's home number to point out the inaccuracy of such a description.

Bad news for Blair. But bad news for Rosie Boycott and the Express staff too. If they are not to be a New Labour paper, what exactly was the point of alienating their traditional right-wing reader base?

It is not just the Labour Party which will feel the effects of the ending of the romance between Blair and the national press.

Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, said yesterday: "Blair's speech was quite clearly intended to repair relations with Labour supporters and it immediately brought out the Mail and the Sun in opposition. They will tolerate Blair as long as he is a Conservative."