What use are the big beasts of the Tory press in the party's hour of need?

It's crunch time for the Conservatives - and for the papers that still support them. Andy McSmith finds out if they are up for the fight, and we highlight the key players in the campaign
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It has been a wobbly old year in the relationship between the Conservative Party and its two great pillars of support in the fourth estate, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

By a coincidence which he describes as "nightmarish", Martin Newland moved into the editor's chair at The Daily Telegraph barely a month before the opening of the boardroom scandal which brought down the proprietor, Conrad Black.

Both the ex-editor, Charles Moore, and the soon to be ex-owner, were public figures with pronounced right-wing opinions. Newland is a working hack made good, with no known party affiliations. In the uncertainty before the Barclay brothers gained control, there was even an unfounded rumour that the newspaper might cut its links with the Tories altogether.

Then, as if Michael Howard had not been put through enough anxiety, last week The Independent secured the first interview with the Daily Mail's young proprietor, Viscount Rothermere. He made the ominous-sounding observation: "The Conservatives do not have a God-given right to expect the loyalty of the Daily Mail."

The point was rammed home by the headline on page 2 of Friday's Mail, which announced the result of the Hartlepool by-election (the front having been given over to Tony Blair's heart operation). It read "Humiliation for Howard as UKIP beat Tories". The Telegraph treated the news with a gentler headline, much further back in the paper.

Actually, neither of these two stalwarts is about to abandon the party, and as the Tories gather for their conference, Michael Howard can count on both to be his cheerleaders. The most recent proof was when Howard announced a proposed tax reform, during the Lib Dem con- ference. While no other newspaper put the story on its front page, and some did not bother reporting it at all, for the Mail and the Telegraph it was the news of the day. A huge headline - "Tories: Inherit up to a million tax free" - filled the front of the Mail.

But another question asked about these two titles is not whether they have backed the Tories, but have they done it well? In the darkest days of the Labour Party 20 years ago, before the launch of The Independent, Neil Kinnock had only two friends among the national dailies - The Guardian and the Daily Mirror - both of which constantly prodded and poked his party back to the political centre.

A complaint heard from Tories - and echoed to some extent even by the Telegraph's new editor - is that the Tory titles have consistently done the opposite. This is also said of their new friend, the Express, whose owner, Richard Desmond, switched horses earlier this year.

Andrew Cooper, a former Conservative Central Office strategist who now works for the polling organisation Populus, says: "The Mail and the Telegraph, as the voice of the core of the party, have been one of the biggest problems in trying to get the Conservative Party to face the need for change." He adds: "Where leaders like William Hague - and Michael Howard, to a certain extent - have tried to modernise, they were quite quickly pushed back on a line of retrenchment because otherwise the Mail and the Telegraph just fell on them. Hague, in particular, fell back on the traditional right-wing agenda of Europe and immigration because he wasn't strong enough to survive against the opposition of these two newspapers. The Daily Express does not have the same impact on thinking at Central Office," he added.

Cooper might be expected to say that. He is an old ally of Michael Portillo, who tried in vain to bring a more modern face to right-wing politics. What is less predictable is Newland's reaction that such criticism is "to a certain extent right".

While insisting that he has "the greatest respect" for his predecessor, that does not run to defending the way Moore and the Telegraph promoted the candidature of Iain Duncan Smith in the 2001 Tory leadership election.

"IDS, for all his obvious merits, was not a leader who was going to take the party back towards electability," Newland says. "But we had backed his candidacy because we were so horrified by the prospect of a Europhile taking over. Frankly, probably, that was a mistake."

The Telegraph aims to be less "ideological" and more focused on "consumer" quest- ions, such as rising taxes, he said. "We try to decouple ourselves from the Tory story," Newland says. "You can reflect the story rather than be part of it. My vision is entirely divorced from political in the partisan sense.

"Our readers aspire to one thing: to provide for themselves and their families with as little interference as possible. We look at the political parties to see if that is what they offer. Any one that does we will be nice to, and anybody else we will be horrible to. At present, the Tories have the better record.

"Though Europe is important, everyone got overexcited and shrill about it, as is the case with Iraq. If the Tories manage to keep Europe out of the frame during the next election, and concentrate on questions like how much is going in to the taxman and what's coming out, that would be a good thing."

Key Players

Paul Dacre

Outlet: 'Daily Mail'

Role: All-powerful Editor since 1992, he courted New Labour but has since returned the paper to its Tory roots.

In his own words: "The dismal message from Brighton is that chameleon Blair sees nothing wrong with his past performance and offers nothing but more of the same... isn't the record wearing thin?" (Leader, 29 Sept)

Big Beast Rating (out of 5): 5

Max Hastings

Outlets: 'Mail', 'Guardian', 'Sunday Telegraph'

Role: Former 'Telegraph' and 'Standard' Editor, he is one of the right's most effective attack dogs, the more potent for having once backed Blair.

In his own words: On Blair: "The maestro of saccharine sincerity has been corrupted by office as absolutely as any Roman emperor. Greed for ... power has eaten into his soul."

BBR: 3

Boris Johnson

Outlets: 'The Spectator', 'The Daily Telegraph' Role: Cripes! Tory MP with a sense of humour! Court jester who has emerged as the party's conscience over Iraq.

In his own words: "I was sitting in the Commons tea room, munching a mournful rock cake and studying the accounts of the US bombing of Fallujah... I found myself cast into a terrible gloom."

BBR: 2

Peter Oborne

Outlets: 'The Spectator', 'Standard'

Role: Story-getter who seems to smell trouble first.

In his own words: "When Blair is long gone... the abiding image of his years in power will be the invasion of the House of Commons. This is the reality of Blair's Britain... and the gulf he has created between the government and the people."

BBR: 4

Simon Heffer

Outlet: 'Daily Mail'

Role: Trenchant fogey whom no Tory leader would want to cross. Interprets the Tory runes for Paul Dacre.

In his own words: "The voters know there is a lot wrong with this country: failing services, rampant crime, illegal immigration and excessive taxation. What they need is a party that recognises their concerns."

BBR: 5

Michael Gove

Outlet: 'The Times'

Role: Brainbox standing as Tory for Surrey Heath.

In his own words: "Any successful British prime minister will have to display tenacity in the face of terror [and] step up the pace of public sector reform. There are several politicians who may be equal to that challenge. But the only one in the Labour Party is Tony Blair."

BBR: 4

Peter Hitchens

Outlet: 'The Mail on Sunday"

Role: The prophet of a "forgotten England" of rage-filled suburbia.

In his own words: "I have no sympathy for Anthony Blair over the kidnapping of Ken Bigley. If Mr Blair cannot sleep this weekend it is because he does not deserve to. He is a coward and a liar and he is suffering the consequences of his behaviour."

BBR: 3

Matthew d'Ancona

Outlet: 'Sunday Telegraph'

Role: Market-maker of the Tory party but drawn to Blair.

In his own words: "The orange overalls of Ken Bigley, his pitiful televised plea and... the hostage crisis in Iraq will cast a bleak shadow over Labour... The war and the resentments it has sown will curl through the conference... and the fringe meetings like the smell of cordite."

BBR: 4

Michael Portillo

Outlet: 'The Sunday Times'

Role: One-time Tory leadership contender now sniping from the sidelines.

In his own words: "The only one of the three main party leaders who ... has not been hobnobbing with anybody controversial this August is Charles Kennedy. Perhaps, like me, he worries about what his mother would think. It's not a bad test to apply."

BBR: 2