Has the Tory Press – once feared and despised in progressive circles – risen from the dead? That seemed to be the consensus last week after the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express poured buckets of ordure over Nick Clegg. Peter Mandelson put on that splendidly bogus look of having been personally affronted, and Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, suggested that Conservative Central Office had masterminded the whole sordid operation. Even some Tories, such as the blogger Iain Dale, thought the attacks might be counter-productive.
Doubtless these newspapers over-egged their stories. Though Mr Clegg had foolishly written in a 2002 newspaper article that the British have "a more insidious cross to bear" because of their sense of moral superiority than the Germans do in respect of Nazi guilt, this does not obviously amount to the "Nazi slur" which the Mail proclaimed in its splash headline. The Telegraph's superficially persuasive allegations about payments improperly made by Lib Dem donors into Mr Clegg's personal bank account were barely followed up, and by the next day the paper itself had almost lost interest.
But if the Lib Dems believe they have been victims of the Tory Press in full cry, they should look at what was done to the Labour Party in 1983, 1987 and 1992. This was kids' stuff by comparison. Mr Clegg can comfort himself with the thought that he has become important enough to warrant an attack, but the broadsides were mostly limited to one morning's front pages last Thursday. If the Mail and Telegraph have also been making much of Mr Clegg's education at Westminster public school, a Russian aristocrat in his family tree, as well as a French château and a sizeable Swiss ski chalet in the background, this was to show that he is at least as posh and privileged as David Cameron, who has been lampooned by the left on that account.
Until last week the so-called Tory newspapers had been as bored with the election as the voters. They don't, in fact, hunt as a pack. While the Sun has rooted for Mr Cameron since last autumn – as blindly and as enthusiastically as it used to for Tony Blair – the Mail and the Telegraph have only set aside their reservations about him since the campaign began, and even now it is hardly perfect love. The two papers have not forgotten the candle they used to burn for Gordon Brown. As recently as a couple of weeks ago a Mail editorial admired his "many qualities" while congratulating him for admitting fault for not having properly regulated the banks.
The Tory Press, in other words, is a very different beast to what it was 20 or 30 years ago. However, the unexpected rise of Nick Clegg lit a dried-up piece of fuse paper, and for the first time since 1992 the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph briefly exploded in unison. (Don't forget that for several years the Express was, like the Sun, pro-New Labour.) But it was absurd of Lord Ashdown to suggest that Tory Central Office was cranking the levers, though it is not impossible that it drew the Mail's attention to Mr Clegg's foolish article. In the end, though, these newspapers make their own decisions about what to put on the front page.
Incidentally, it is a fascinating reflection that the Mail, Telegraph and the Sun have very large numbers of Lib Dem voters amongst their readers. Based on voting intentions expressed to pollsters in the months before the 2005 election, 14 per cent of Mail readers (probably about 850,000 people) and 18 per cent of Telegraph readers (around 500,000 people) voted Lib Dem, as against 22 per cent of the population as a whole. The Mail almost certainly has more Lib Dem-voting readers than any other newspaper.
I don't suppose they were overjoyed by last week's pyrotechnics. The question is how many more they, and other readers of Tory news- papers, can expect. Mr Clegg will no doubt continue to come in for a certain amount of biffing, but it will be as nothing compared to what Neil Kinnock suffered in 1992. For a whole variety of reasons, not least (the Sun excepted) their lack of real enthusiasm for Mr Cameron, the so-called Tory Press is not the slavering beast it used to be. I'm not sure the same can be said of the smaller anti-Tory Press comprising the Daily Mirror and, more delicately, The Guardian, about which high-minded people get a lot less worked up.
Last week's effusions against Mr Clegg somehow put me in mind of that excellent Radio 4 programme The Reunion, hosted by Sue MacGregor, which brings together members of a team who once collaborated on a project but have long since gone their separate ways. For a brief moment the Tory papers were re-united in appalled horror at the surge of Nick Clegg. It may be some time, though, before the old team comes together again.
The first debate on ITV on 15 April was forecast to draw 20 million people. In the event, Nick Clegg's triumph was watched by 9.4 million, less than a quarter of the electorate of 43.35 million. The second debate on Sky News last Thursday was viewed by only 4.1 million, less than 10 per cent of the electorate. Some people have suggested that the lower figure reflects the channel's narrower reach, but Sky News is available in over 90 per cent of homes. There seems to have been a diminution of interest between the first and second debates.
The figure for BBC's debate this Thursday may well be greater, though whether it will exceed 9.4 million is another matter. The polls apparently confirm that the two debates have been highly influential, yet each was watched by a minority. (We don't know the overlap between the two audiences.) Of course, many others will have learnt about the debates on television or radio news, or in the newspapers. Still, most of the electorate, and probably most of those who will actually vote, will not have watched a single debate.