The Express and Blair: end of the affair

New Labour thought it had one friend in the middle market. But after a spate of anti-Government stories, it can no longer rely on the support of the Daily Express
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The Independent Online

A few months ago I suggested that Lord Hollick, the owner of the Daily Express, was falling out of love with Tony Blair. Retribution was swift. I received a phone call from Lord Hollick to tell me I was talking nonsense. But this time it really does look like the end of the affair.

A few months ago I suggested that Lord Hollick, the owner of the Daily Express, was falling out of love with Tony Blair. Retribution was swift. I received a phone call from Lord Hollick to tell me I was talking nonsense. But this time it really does look like the end of the affair.

To suggest a year ago that some of the most vitriolic attacks on Mr Blair from the press during last week's Labour Party conference would have come from the Daily Express, would have been laughable. But that is what happened. Indeed, it has appeared even more hostile than its mid-market rival, the unashamedly pro-Conservative Daily Mail

On Monday a Daily Express poll showed that the NHS was worse under Labour. The paper is, of course, correct to report an independent poll it has commissioned, though one wonders if it would have splashed on it, let alone commissioned it a year ago. And I suspect that again a year ago the headline writers might not have been allowed to get away with the more general and damning "Why we think Labour is bad for our health".

An examination of the coverage of that first day of conference issue shows the way the Express was thinking. Mr Blair was blasted in another headline for not apologising for the Dome, even though most other papers picked on the fact that he had at last admitted that the Dome hadn't been a success.

For once Peter Hitchens' predictably anti-Labour column "Now at last we can see them as they really are" was not a solitary right-wing force clinging resolutely to the Beaverbrook credo, but a voice totally in tune with the rest of the paper. His daily conference column carried the logo "Peter Hitchens' Dissident View", but rarely had it been less dissident.

As the week wore on, the anti-Labour coverage grew even harsher. The Daily Express, which had been campaigning for higher pensions, even became a part of the anti-Labour story itself. It had "Give us the cash Gordon" posters for pensioners to hold aloft as they lobbied Labour ministers.

It was not a clear cut case of Labour bashing. The paper was generous in its praise of the Prime Minister's speech on Wednesday. But compare Thursday's front page, given over to the pensions vote defeating the Government line and a headline "Bloodied Blair must act" with the Labour-supporting Mirror which focused on a new opinion poll putting Labour "Back in front".

The Daily Express can argue with some merit that it had correctly focused on the more important issue of pensions, not least for its own readers, which it is now acknowledging are not in the first flush. The pensions campaign, first discussed at the paper in June, has had a high profile, harnessing the campaigning instincts of Rosie Boycott, the paper's editor.

And even before conference started, the paper's political editor, Anthony Bevins, had been on the trail of Dome minister, Lord Falconer, claiming on the front page that he had lied to the House of Lords. And perhaps most tellingly of all, the paper had sided with the fuel protesters during the darkest days yet for the Government. Would it have been so quick to highlight and campaign for so many issues embarrassing to the Government a mere 12 months ago?

A look at last year's conference coverage suggests not. True, in 1999 the Express's antennae for a good story ensured that it had fun at the expense of John Prescott for his short journeys in two Jags while lecturing the rest of us on cutting car journeys, and at Michael Meacher for criticising ownership of two homes, a crime which would have put some of his Cabinet colleagues in the dock.

But, on the more serious policy issues the Express kept the faith. The headlines were still emotive; but this time they were soundly on message. "Crime crusader Straw helps terrified old folk lock out the burglars" was a conference headline the Home Office press department must have stuck on the wall in delight. The Chancellor must have been as satisfied with "Brown declares war on greed, privilege and fat cat bosses".

So, why the change? A change commented upon by ministers privately in Brighton last week. Boycott in her weekly letter to readers last Saturday said the paper had not become anti-government, but several stories had come together "that we really care about". Yet she went on to list a litany of complaints against the Government, including "politicians who seem to spend more time briefing against each other for forthcoming books than actually delivering the things they said they would", a complaint that she could have laid against the Government many times in the last three years.

It was not just the commentator, Stephen Glover, in his Spectator column, who felt that the reason for the Express's change in tone was that Lord Hollick is still angry with the Government over Granada's purchase of Meridian, HTV and Anglia from United News and Media. This had been made possible by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, changing the rules governing television franchises. Ministers, too, believe Hollick is sulking in his tent.

Meanwhile, the belief at the paper from top to bottom is that the Hollick era is coming to an end. He is not thought to have had a discussion about the paper's future for at least three months now. And it is the whim of key United shareholders like Mercury Asset management that may yet decide the Express's fate. How passionate they are about loss-making newspapers is uncertain.

Boycott has certainly had lunch with one interested party, Mohamed al Fayed, though she is far too shrewd an editor to harbour any illusions that a Fayed proprietorship would not involve an editor running stories to suit whatever his current obsession might be. It is unlikely that she could stomach that. It is known that she wants the ownership of Lord Hollick and his United Newspapers to continue. The Barclay brothers, are "keen to buy a national newspaper" said Andrew Neil in an interview in the latest Media Week, naming the Express as one of those they were interested in. (I should point out that he also named The Observer and The Independent. He must have had a hearty lunch that day.)

Neither Fayed nor Neil are Blairites. It might be too Machiavellian to suggest that the Express is beginning a move towards a more critical attitude towards the Government in anticipation of a new owner. But whatever the reason, it might, ironically, make it a more convincing paper. Boycott was right to want to position her paper against the Daily Mail, with an opposing stance on Europe and much else. But it has never been convincing as a Blairite paper, as the letters column has shown. Taking a more independent stance could make it more challenging. It now just needs its proprietor to make up his mind whether he really wants to own it or not.