The end of the affair with Blair

Newspapers enjoyed giving Labour a kicking after its poor showing in last week's elections. Andrew Grice, political editor of The Independent, considers whether New Labour's honeymoon with the press is finally over
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The Independent Online

Is Tony Blair's long honeymoon with Fleet Street finally over? Labour's poor performance in last Thursday's elections to local authorities and for London Mayor was met with near-universal opprobrium, even from the Government's usual cheerleaders in the press.

The change of mood was summed up by The Sun. Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street press secretary, regards winning its support at the 1997 general election as his finest hour - a highly symbolic shift by Britain's biggest-selling daily, which claimed it "won it" for the Tories in 1992.

Last week, however, Mr Blair got a taste of the "dead parrot" treatment previously meted out so mercilessly to William Hague when the Tory party was in the doldrums. On 1 May, The Sun's front-page editorial predicted the inevitable electoral rout under a screaming "Mayday, Mayday" headline. The Sun warned that Mr Blair was "beginning to lose the next election", while saying that Mr Hague was "maturing into a credible threat".

Mr Blair responded in his usual style: he spent his bank holiday at Chequers writing a 975-word reply, claiming The Sun's criticism was "more than a little unfair". But this time the old trick failed to work: Tuesday's Sun ran a one-word front page headline, "Rattled".

Labour bosses expected a kicking from already-hostile papers such as The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. What hurt more were the brickbats from The Sun and the normally loyal Express, whose front page had "A bloody nose for Blair" on Friday and asked if he had "Got the message?" on Saturday.

But Downing Street should not really have been taken by surprise: newspapers cannot be too out of tune with their readers and, like voters, readers cannot be wrong. All the same, the papers probably enjoyed giving the Government a kicking. Many journalists think Labour has had an easy ride from their profession since 1997 and so want to play catch-up. There is also some resentment of the Government's "spin-doctoring" and recycling old policy announcements as new.

There was also little media joy for Labour over the mayoral election. No newspaper came out in support of Frank Dobson, the official Labour candidate, with a majority plumping for the Tories' Steve Norris. They included the Labour-supporting Mirror, a decision seen by Downing Street as a fit of pique by The Mirror over Mr Blair's decision to write his piece for The Sun. Again, Labour can hardly complain: Mr Dobson ran a poor campaign and no paper likes to back a loser.

All the same, Mr Blair and his allies believe the press is being extremely unfair and their frustration is growing. "We are infinitely more spun against than spinning," the Prime Minister told The Times in an interview yesterday, rejecting criticism that the Government was too obsessed with presentation. For his part, Mr Campbell now rebuts allegations of spin-doctoring by complaining instead about "spin-journalism".

The current torrent of press criticism will encourage Mr Campbell in his campaign to by-pass Fleet Street wherever possible by dealing directly with broadcasters, the regional, ethnic and international press and using the internet.

"We want to scrap the Lobby system within five years," one Downing Street insider confessed - on an off-the-record basis, of course. It is believed that Mr Campbell wants to scrap his 4pm meeting with Lobby journalists at Westminster and retain only his 11am briefing at Downing Street. But, whether he likes or not, the broadcasters' agenda is often set by Fleet Street's reports.

To some extent, all governments run into choppy mid-term waters with the press and, as Enoch Powell said, politicians who complain about the media are like sailors who complain about the sea. But what implications are there for the next general election? Mr Hague managed to set the media agenda during the local elections campaign, and if he keeps this up the Government's frustration will continue. The media will want the election to be a close-run thing, even if it is not.

But perhaps Mr Blair and his spin doctors should not be losing too much sleep. The Sun enjoys tweaking the Government's tail and may just be having a bit of mid-term fun. Indeed, by the weekend it was saying the loss of the Romsey by-election was "awful news" for Mr Hague and that there was no need for Mr Blair to panic. Ministers are cautiously optimistic that The Sun will still shine on Labour come the election, not least because it will want to back a winner. Mr Blair, who managed to get an "I love the pound" headline in The Sun in 1997, will doubtless have a few new tricks up his sleeve as he seeks to woo the press ahead of the next election. The honeymoon is over, but Labour and the press are not yet heading for the divorce courts.