The red-top tabloids are going through one of their ever rarer periods of agenda setting. They are in the news not, for once, for their exposure of the sexual activities of politicians and footballers but for their confident and populist treatment of law and order. That scares politicians: these are the "real" issues that sway votes.
It takes two to create such a situation, and we would not be where we are if the Government were popular and appeared to be in control. It is neither, and the succession of Home Office cock-ups over crime and punishment, asylum and immigration, have created an environment in which the tabloids can claim that they know what their readers really care about.
Politicians do not have to react. But when Tony Blair and John Reid are reacting, the tabloids have the satisfaction of feeling that they are influencing events.
That is good news for Rebekah Wade (right), the editor of The Sun, and Andy Coulson, the editor of the News of the World, the biggest-selling daily and Sunday newspapers. It is good news too for Rupert Murdoch, who owns them. Does it give these three real power?There is some evidence that it does. Coulson's News of the World has reactivated the campaign, started by Wade when she edited that paper, to import "Megan's law" from America, to make public the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles. Reid is dispatching a junior minister to the US on a fact-finding mission.
The Sun is campaigning against judges who, it claims, are soft on "killers, child-sex beasts and rapists". Reid has sought the review of a case in which the judge said that a life sentence for a sexual assault on a three-year-old girl could be considered for parole after five years.
Reid is also reorganising the Home Office after revelations about the early release of prisoners and failure to deport foreign nationals convicted of serious crimes. Blair has been to a Bristol housing estate to talk to victims of crime. The Sun, on the side of "terrorised residents ", called for zero tolerance of the "nightmare of anti-social behaviour" by "feral children".
The silent majority have their voice back, and government ministers remember the influence of The Sun in bringing Margaret Thatcher to power. So plenty of Cabinet ministers were at Murdoch's summer party in London last week. And Blair will be going to his annual gathering of senior executives and editors next month.
Wade eschews the spotlight but has celebrity status and networks on the political and celebrity circuits. Her conversation with David Cameron at the Beckhams' pre-World Cup party certainly neutralised her hiring of David Blunkett as a Sun columnist after his departure from the Cabinet. Labour strategists will be wondering about The Sun's intentions. Wade matters. The Sun sells more copies than The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph combined.
As Dominic Lawson, put it in The Independent, the red-tops "have always been gripped by the issue of violent crime... because so many of their readers, on council estates or deprived areas, are more vulnerable to violent crime than those who read this newspaper, The Guardian or The Times."
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of SheffieldReuse content