rom 1997 until the election of David Cameron as leader, the right-wing press had an enormous influence within the Tory party. The Daily Telegraph more or less invented Iain Duncan Smith. The Daily Mail promoted and enthusiastically adopted Michael Howard. The advent of Mr Cameron changed the balance of power between the party leadership and the Tory press. He created his own momentum and the newspapers followed. When the Mail urged him to come clean on whether he had ever taken drugs, Mr Cameron ignored its advice. This was a kind of victory.
The new Tory leader's first objective was to square the BBC. He and his advisers believed that without a fair wind from the Corporation it was unlikely that the Conservatives would ever regain power. Given Tony Blair's unpopularity, he was to some extent pushing at an open door. But the tone of his discourse, and the statements of belief he has made over the past few weeks, have found favour within the BBC, and for the first time in many years a Tory leader is generally depicted in a favourable light.
But what pleases the BBC may not please the Tory press, which tends to lean to the right of the party, which means far to the right of David Cameron. The Mail and the Telegraph have written snippy things about him over recent weeks. They were grumpy when he said that grammar schools would never be revived under a Tory government. Neither paper was happy last week with what they judged a timorous statement on tax, and the Telegraph in particular was disappointed that the flat tax should have been unceremoniously jettisoned. The Sun, which remains wedded to Tony Blair, and is in any case right-wing rather than Tory, is also not convinced by David Cameron; eight days ago its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, urged him to be less wishy-washy.
Does Mr Cameron have a problem with the Tory press? Only a limited one at the moment. The Mail and the Telegraph and the Daily Express will continue to snipe at him but, so long as the Tories hang on to the gains in the polls they have achieved since he became leader, these newspapers are unlikely to give full vent to their pretty deep-seated reservations about the man. As things stand, it can hardly be denied that Mr Cameron's rebranding of the Tories as a party of the centre is winning them more support, and he is of course tremendously lucky that the Lib Dems should have chosen this particular moment to self-destruct.
My feeling is that The Daily Telegraph is particularly unhappy. Or, to put it another way, the Mail is more relaxed about living with its sense of dissatisfaction. Its proprietor, Lord Rothermere, is of an age with Mr Cameron, and politically of a similar hue. Its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, is probably prepared to set aside many of his doubts as long as the Tories seem to have a reasonable chance of winning the next election.
At the Telegraph, the opposition to Mr Cameron is more venomous. Its editor, John Bryant, is a pragmatic Cameroonian, but he is surrounded by men who are fiercely critical of the Tory leader: the neo-Powellite columnist Simon Heffer; the director of communications, Guy Black, who appears to have taken a dislike to Mr Cameron when they both worked for Michael Howard; and Jeff Randall, who has already had a pop at the Tory leader in his column in the City pages. The paper's chairman, Aidan Barclay, did not welcome Mr Cameron's recent unfriendly remarks about big business.
For all his early show of independence, the new Tory leader is well aware of the need to do whatever he can to keep the Tory press on side. Even before he was elected leader, he and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, lunched with Lord Rothermere and the editors at the Mail group. Meetings have taken place more recently with editors in other groups. Mr Cameron would probably rather be at odds with the Telegraph than the Mail, since the latter has more than twice as many readers, but he can hardly want a war with the Telegraph, though there may be advantages in having a man like Simon Heffer as your enemy. There is talk of the paper's proprietors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, receiving peerages, though Mr Blair may be as anxious as Mr Cameron is to take the credit for their ennoblement.
One day, perhaps in two or three years' time, when his centrist credentials have been stamped on the public mind, Mr Cameron will be able to throw the Tory press a concession or two. But he can't do that at the moment without fatally disappointing his new friends at the BBC. In a way, this is the period of maximum risk - but then his entire strategy is one huge bold gamble. If he should slump in the polls in the coming months, the Tory right and the Tory press will devour him. For the moment, they watch and they wait.
A talented man with Simple tastes
The death last week of the great satirist Michael Wharton (Peter Simple of the Daily Telegraph) set me thinking. He must have been one of the most unapologetically right-wing journalists of the past 50 years - supporting the whites in what was then called Rhodesia, for example - and yet he was admired by many on the left. Perhaps this was because his hatred of every aspect of the modern age was shared, though often for different reasons, by people who loathed his politics. And although he created a gallery of absurd leftish figures, they were never figures of hate. He was more amused than repelled by them, and brought something of the artist's love to their creation. When I joined the Daily Telegraph in 1978, Michael Wharton was its only regular columnist. To an obscure young journalist he seemed reserved, and during the seven years I spent on the paper we went no further than to nod politely at each other as we passed. But every day I read, and laughed at, his column.
When he later published his hilarious two-volume autobiography I was surprised by the relative penury in which he lived even while he was being read by millions of people. He lived in a poky, leaky flat in Battersea without central heating, though he did also have a cottage in the Chilterns. Every day he made the long journey by bus from Battersea to 135 Fleet Street. In those days Bill Deedes, the paper's editor, could be seen around 10 o'clock in the evening waiting for a Number 14 bus to take him to Charing Cross station.
The other day a reliable source told me that a Daily Telegraph columnist is being paid £250,000 a year for one piece a week. Of course, we should all be in favour of such salaries being paid to journalists, and I applaud Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Group, for doing it. Michael Wharton would probably have been appalled to have been paid so much money. He was a star in an era when the Daily Telegraph did not concede that such people existed.Reuse content