The end of the affair: Dacre moves towards Cameron

Middle England's favourite editor and the dour PM made unlikely political bedfellows. Now, Paul Dacre's Daily Mail is finally signalling a shift from Gordon Brown to David Cameron's Tories

After more than a decade, Paul Dacre, the powerful and long-serving editor of the Daily Mail, finally signalled what has long been speculated upon – a shift in his support from Gordon Brown to David Cameron.

A leader column in the Mail last Thursday heaped praise on the "formidable" Conservative leader, who, it said, was out-classing Brown. It was dictated by Dacre and seen as a turning point in the Mail's position on Brown and his Government.

Dacre, whose newspaper attacked Tony Blair nearly every day of his decade as Prime Minister, once described Brown as "touched by the mantle of greatness".

But insiders said the close personal friendship between him and Brown has been overtaken by a loss of confidence in the Prime Minister, collapsing support in the polls for Labour, and dismay at "leaden-footed" cabinet ministers.

Dacre was also taken by the Tory leader's call last week for absent black fathers to take more parental responsibility, echoing a speech by the US presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The move is a blow for the Prime Minister, who has counted on the support and influence of the Mail during his turbulent first year. A number of announcements by Brown in his first few weeks in Downing Street – including a retreat on Blair's policies on 24-hour drinking and super-casinos – were apparently tailored to suit the paper.

Under the headline "David Cameron is starting to look like a real leader", last week's editorial said: "With a steady 20-point lead in the opinion polls, the Tory leader might have been tempted to sit back and allow a beleaguered Government to carry on with the business of destroying itself. To his great credit, however, he is doing no such thing. Instead, he is emerging as a politician who is unafraid to address some of the most controversial and sensitive issues confronting modern Britain.

"In the past couple of days, he has also shown himself ahead of the Government in recognising the scale of our economic crisis and suggesting remedies to ease the pain so many are now experiencing.

One insider said: "This is more than just one editorial. Things have changed." There was speculation that the Mail's owner, Lord Rothermere, who supports Cameron, had let it be known that the paper should shift its position – despite Dacre previously being given total editorial freedom. Rothermere and the Tory leader are the same age and are close politically.

Equally significant was internal polling for Associated Newspapers this year, which showed that just 7 per cent of Mail readers would vote Labour at the next election, compared with more than 20 per cent a year ago.

Other Mail editorials last week criticised the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

Dacre's friendship with Brown has baffled some because of the Mail's position as the voice of conservative Middle England. Yet the two share a similar work ethic, and Dacre has had reservations about Cameron's history as a PR man and his "lack of substance". Dacre has edited the Mail since 1992, making him the UK's longest-serving national newspaper editor.