Only one paper seems to get what Cameron is about
On The Press: It's the press that's off pace, Dave's feeling just fine - beef or no beef
Sunday 08 October 2006
Twelve months ago Martin Newland was editing The Daily Telegraph and hosting a conference dinner attended by David Cameron and George Osborne. A year on, Newland, driven out of the editor's chair at the Telegraph, is writing for The Guardian, about last year's dinner - his guests now leader of the opposition and shadow chancellor. The party and the paper that historically represents it have moved on.
For all the Telegraph's hubs, spokes, pods and 21st-century newsroom, on the evidence of last week the party has moved on more than the paper. As Newland put it: "I sensed that, for the first time in years, a Tory leadership battle would be reported on, rather than shaped by, the Telegraph." The battle fought and won, that remains true today.
And not just for the Telegraph. How good a press did Cameron and the Conservatives hope to gain in Bournemouth? The best answer for the party leadership was "so-so" rather than "marvellous". And so it was, particularly from the papers which matter to the Tories - the ones the rank and file read.
The word of the week was "beef", which would doubtless have pleased Boris Johnson, as long it was in pie form. Beef was in short supply, according to the Tory-faithful press, and this had to change. Keep beef out of it, was the leadership's clear aim, which was duly delivered.
Cameron greedily had two bites, or speeches, perhaps thinking this would deliver him the front pages twice. By Thursday, after three party conferences, editors rightly gauged that the readers were not crying out for more politics. The Amish classroom murders had by then stolen the headlines. So Cameron's second and major speech to conference was absent from the front pages of the Sun, Mail, Independent, Express and Mirror. The Times ran just a picture on the front, The Guardian just the sketch. We were left with one newspaper splashing on the big speech - the Telegraph.
But what was the line? Regeneration? Heading back to government? No, the line the Telegraph selected was "Cameron kills Tory taboos on gays and single parents". It was indicative of the coverage by the loyal Conservative newspapers - the Express, Mail and Telegraph. Only The Times seemed, to a point, to recognise what Cameron is about.
While both Cameron and George Osborne explained why they would not be talking tax cuts at conference, the Express insisted that the "Tories must not waste an opportunity to cut taxes. Tebbit is right." And on the facing page there was a feature from the paper's chief political commentator: "Is shadow chancellor George Osborne just a boy in a man's job?"
The Mail adopted the same tone, wheeling out its ranter-in-chief, Melanie Phillips, to say that there was little difference between Cameron and Gordon Brown, whileStephen Glover took the line: "My only beef is, Mr Cameron, where's the beef?"
The Sun leader of the same day had the same message. "Where is the beef, Dave? We asked for beef. We were offered cloudy, lukewarm soup." The Sun has supported New Labour through its three successful elections, but cannot be taken for granted. It was perhaps significant that its beef leader ran to a full column. It may have been critical of New Tories, but it was taking them seriously.
Will Cameron have minded that the newspapers his party can usually rely on for support were less than effusive in their praise for the new leader? He will not. He is far too Blairite. He is not setting out to convert Mail and Telegraph readers to his cause. However much they harrumph they are not going to vote Labour. They applauded Cameron's speech; and they voted for him as leader.
At this stage of Cameron's leadership and the electoral cycle, it is the supportive press who are off the pace. The new leader will be content about that. Conference mission accomplished.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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