The front page of The Times last Tuesday will have shaken the teacups at Tory HQ. At the top was a photograph of David and Samantha Cameron standing alongside David Ross and his girlfriend. Mr Ross is the chap in the soup over his shareholding in Carphone Warehouse. The headline over the picture was "The Party's over for Carphone playboy". The unwritten headline was "And Cameron is a silly ass for accepting donations from such a man".
A second barrel was discharged on the same front page. Under the headline "Brown's recovery gathers pace with new poll boost", the "splash" banged on about how much better the Prime Minister was doing than the Tory leader. The piece led not on the state-of-the-parties poll, which had the Tories four points ahead, but with the fact that Brown and Darling are seen by the public as a more plausible economic pairing than Cameron and Osborne.
The Tory leader associates with iffy playboys, and is a bit of a lightweight: that was the not very encouraging message for the Tories. It is pretty typical of The Times' recent coverage. Five or six months ago, the paper was regularly sticking the boot into the Prime Minister, so much so that an official pronunciamento by its proprietor Rupert Murdoch disowning Gordon Brown seemed almost imminent. Since then it has changed its tune as Mr Brown has recovered, and the Tories have slipped back.
The turning point came during the early autumn when various Corfu shenanigans came to light. The Times did not spare George Osborne for having unwisely hobnobbed with Oleg Deripaska, the controversial Russian billionaire – rather to its credit, since Mr Murdoch and his daughter Anna were among the cast of characters – while admittedly giving Peter Mandelson an equally hard time. It is not so much that the paper has fallen in love again with Gordon Brown; rather that it has taken against the Tory leader and his crew.
Mr Cameron's difficulties with The Times reflect those he has with the entire non-left-wing press. Amazingly, he does not enjoy anything like full-hearted support from any single title. He got to being 20 points ahead in the polls without their encouragement, and he has fallen back without their encouragement, though the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have warmly supported his and Mr Osborne's decision to detach the Tories from the Government's spending commitments.
You may say that all this only goes to show that newspapers like to back winners. Despite Mr Cameron's whopping poll leads of two or three months ago, the right-wing press does not yet see him as winner, and understands that the electorate remains highly volatile. If only Mr Cameron could restore his commanding lead in the polls and retain it, he would have these newspapers eating out of his hand.
But is it as simple as that? There was a time when some right-wing newspapers – I am thinking particularly of The Daily Telegraph – stuck with a Tory leader in opposition through thick and thin. Margaret Thatcher had some rocky periods between 1975 and 1979, but she was never ditched by the Mail, the Telegraph or The Sun. To a large degree the old Tory press has been replaced by a right-wing press which endorses individual policies but does not commit itself to unswerving loyalty.
This is a problem for David Cameron. He needs two or three enthusiastic cheerleaders. Where is he going to get them?
The Barclays undo the work of centuries at their peril
Michael Wharton, who wrote the peerless Peter Simple column in The Daily Telegraph over four decades, invented a fictitious newspaper called the "Feudal and Reactionary Herald". This organ nursed a grievance against the American colonists for having thrown off their British masters.
I don't recall whether the "Feudal and Reactionary Herald" ever took an interest in the tiny Channel island of Sark, but if it had one can be sure it would have been a favourable one. Wharton would have loved Sark. It is – or at least was, until recently – the only place in Europe that could be accurately described as feudal.
By a delightful irony of history, its ancient undemocratic constitution has been challenged by the proprietors of The Daily Telegraph, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. In 1993 the brothers bought the island of Brechou, which comes under the suzerainty of Sark. Their campaign to bring Sark into the democratic age culminated last week in an election in which their candidates were roundly defeated by reactionary forces.
How the "Feudal and Reactionary Herald" would have celebrated this setback. It would have scoffed at the presumption of wealthy newcomers in trying to undo the work of centuries, and questioned whether the Barclays really are sincere representatives of democracy.
The changes which the Barclays have tried to bring about in Sark are paralleled by those at the Telegraph. A new broom has been applied there more effectively. Last week two of the paper's best writers, A.N. Wilson and Craig Brown, were dismissed. Though neither reactionary nor obviously feudal, they represented the old order. Mr Brown had inherited Michael Wharton's mantle; his late father-in-law, Colin Welch, invented the Peter Simple column. To jettison writers such as Wilson and Brown is an even greater absurdity than trying to refashion Sark.
US-style press bankruptcies aren't inevitable over here
Many people assume that what happens in America will soon happen here. So last week's appalling news that those once mighty newspapers the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy is seen by some as a portent of disaster in this country.
They point out that the internet, which is so undermining traditional newspapers, is in wider use in the United States than it is in Britain. They say that the deleterious effect the net has already had on circulation in this country will worsen as we catch up with our American cousins.
Not so fast. Only a fool would deny that the internet is having a bad effect on sales of British newspapers. But we should remember that titles such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are regional newspapers. Their business model has been undermined by the flight of metropolitan classified advertising to the internet, as is happening to local papers in Britain.
Yes, the internet is stealing readers from national newspapers. The silver lining is that a much greater proportion of their advertising is display rather than classified, and hitherto more resistant to the net.