Newspapers can lose elections too – or at least fail to win them. The Sun prides itself with always being on the winning side. In 1979 it rooted for Margaret Thatcher, and backed her during her victories in 1983 and 1987. In 1992 the paper rallied to John Major, and claimed a decisive role in flattening Neil Kinnock. By 1997 it was supporting Tony Blair, and stood by him in 2001 (having poured a good deal of cold porridge on William Hague) and again in 2005.
So 2010 is the first occasion for a long time that the Sun has not backed the winner. You may say the Tories effectively won, but they wouldn't be talking with the Lib Dems if they had. The paper's boastful, myth-making claim that it can swing elections may have been long derided, but until now it was not so glaringly obvious how misplaced it was.
One interesting question is whether The Sun actually had a negative effect on the Conservative campaign. I wouldn't rule it out. When it dropped Labour last September, it trumpeted its change of allegiance. "Look at us!" was the cry. It then proceeded to bash up Gordon Brown at every opportunity. Though there may be no causal link, the Tories' fortunes began to decline almost from the moment The Sun switched its support.
Were some of its readers repelled by the crudity and brutality of its attacks on the Prime Minister? I can't say. But it seems possible that the paper may have hardened anti-Tory attitudes at the BBC and elsewhere. Here was the Murdoch-owned Sun attacking Labour in voluble terms it had not used since 1992. Leftists who had tolerated Rupert Murdoch for many years were reminded that he had pride of place in their lexicon of hate.
The phrase "Tory Press" – for long a pretty moribund concept – began to be employed again, even though until the start of the campaign it was largely a one-paper band, with The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail unwilling to conceal their reservations about David Cameron. They only sprang into action, and gave some belated though possibly fleeting plausibility to the idea that the Tory Press was back in business, when the Nick Clegg surge began. One could argue, of course, that if the Mail and Telegraph had offered more sustained and heartfelt support for Mr Cameron, the Tories would have fared better last Thursday.
What is certain is that The Sun did not deliver the result it fought for, and it is arguable that the ferocity and one-sidedness of its attacks on Mr Brown were counter-productive. The author of the paper's strategy was not the much-hated Rupert Murdoch but his son James, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, publisher of the Sun.
Mrs Brooks and James Murdoch were wooed and won over by Mr Cameron, a near neighbour of Mrs Brooks' in the infamous "Chipping Norton triangle". There have been unsubstantiated allegations of a deal involving some quid pro quo by him as Prime Minister. Whether or not there was such an arrangement, Murdoch Snr retained misgivings about Mr Cameron, and a certain fondness for Mr Brown.
Incidentally, the extremity of The Sun's assaults on Mr Brown pale by comparison with The Daily Mirror's treatment of the Tory leader. The Labour-supporting paper portrayed him as a combination of Prince Rupert and Lord Liverpool while inventing scare stories about Tory spending cuts. The culmination of its class war came on election day, with a front page dominated by that picture of an admittedly supercilious-looking young David Cameron in Bullingdon Club gear.
Rupert Murdoch must be wondering whether James and Rebekah have played their cards wisely. They have succeeded in puncturing the myth of the king-making abilities of The Sun. They have also backed the paper into a cul-de-sac. It cannot be overjoyed by the prospect of a Tory alliance with Nick Clegg, whose views about Europe and the euro, as well as immigration and a host of other issues, are anathema to it. Any deal made between the Tories and News International will hardly be deliverable with the Lib Dems hovering in the wings. Yet the paper cannot easily distance itself from Mr Cameron, whom it has portrayed as a political genius and visionary. The Mail and Telegraph, by contrast, will find it much less difficult to do so in view of their longstanding doubts about the Conservative leader. All in all, The Sun is not precisely where it might like to be.
The only tribe Watkins ever really belonged to
Alan Watkins, the great columnist who died on Saturday aged 77, was earmarked as The Independent's first political commentator. Before its launch I had lunch with him in an attempt to lure him. He was unwilling to give up his job as political columnist on The Observer for the vagaries of a new newspaper, but suggested he should write a rugby column instead, which he did. Some years later, Alan joined The Independent on Sunday as its political columnist. For him there was no higher calling – not even an editor's chair.
He was a Labour man, steeped in the history of his party, but not narrowly or exclusively so. The bonds of friendship overrode political differences. I first met him in the late 1970s in the flat of my friend Frank Johnson, then the parliamentary sketch writer of The Daily Telegraph, more right-wing at that time than later. Alan was a neighbour of Frank's, and the two men were firm friends, forever popping in and out of each other's flats, gossiping about politics and journalism. Frank, who was 10 years younger, claimed to have served Alan when he was a tea boy at the Sunday Express in the late 1950s, though he did not remember this.
His memoir A Short Walk Down Fleet Street is one of the most evocative books about journalism. Alan's preferred tribe was not really Labour. It was made up of the mad souls – perhaps particularly the better-read ones – who live for newspapers.