Who will win the battle of Hastings?

Reputedly under fire from the right, 'Telegraph' editor Max Hastings has moved on. John Lyttle examines the background
You have been editor of Britain's top selling daily broadsheet for 10 years. You're reasonably happy, but times have been easier. You're nearly 50, so you probably have one big career move left in you. Then someone comes along and offers you pounds 450,000 a year.

So what if it is a local newspaper?

That Max Hastings was poised to leave the Daily Telegraph had been a staple of the Fleet Street rumour mill for the past year. The other great guessing game was Stewart Steven's impending departure from the editor's chair at the London Evening Standard. Last Friday the two combined with Hastings's resignation from the Telegraph to take over at the Standard.

The big-money transfer should prove a happy homecoming for Hastings, who built his journalistic career as editor of the Standard's Londoner's Diary gossip column, then as its renowned war correspondent in the Falklands. So far in advance of the chasing pack was he that newspaper lore credits him with single-handedly liberating Port Stanley.

A clear head, ingenuity and resilience under fire seemed his most obvious selling points when he was then chosen as editor of the Daily Telegraph. Circulation was hovering at 1.1 million, compared with 1.4 million in 1980. According to one senior colleague, the paper was a "dinosaur, dying on its feet - it didn't seem to be in the real world."

Hastings set about dragging the paper into the late 20th century: the Telegraph shed its stuffy image enough to bring in younger readers without alienating its traditional following, dropping its aloof air for the mid-market Middle England populism of the Daily Mail.

The circulation decline slowed beforeflattening out at 1 million in 1993. Despite a vicious price war with the Times, the paper had nudged over the million mark again by last year (circulation managers on rival titles believe the Telegraph is giving away more than 100,000 copies a day to hotels, airlines, etc, to hold the psychological high ground of seven figures).

There has been little dispute over the broad direction in which the paper had to move. It is the fuss over Hastings's apparent inability to define the political soul of the paper that may have led to his departure last week. Educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, Hastings is a one-nation Tory patrician. According to another senior colleague, "Max is first and foremost a journalist. Which means, above all, he's a pragmatist."

What that also meant was a wearying with the dogmatism of the Conservative Party's right wing - much to the chagrin of Conrad Black, the Telegraph's chairman and principal shareholder. Black was reportedly behind the decision last year to hire Simon Heffer, a firebrand of the Conservative right, as deputy editor, ostensibly to give back the paper some of its political bite.

Many inside Canary Wharf tower initially saw Heffer as an editor in waiting. However it quickly became clear that for all his political "soundness", Heffer was not national daily newspaper editor material.

Telegraph staff say that by this summer Hastings had successfully marginalised Heffer; while many outsiders had supposed that a leading article calling for the defeat of John Major in the Tory leadership contest had been the work of Heffer and Boris Johnson, another right-wing assistant editor, it had in fact been written by Hastings himself.

At that point it appeared that Hastings was back in control - and favour. However, the sniping from the right continued. There are even suggestions that Black was looking to appoint Dominic Lawson, editor of the Spectator, as the paper's number two in preparation for taking over after the next general election. The move, which would have sidelined Hastings's own deputy, Veronica Wadley, was the "final straw", said one journalist.

Staff at the Telegraph returned from lunch on Friday to find a hastily photocopied statement on their desks. At the Standard, they had to wait for a Press Association announcement at 2.18pm. Hastings had caught everyone on the hop.

So what next? Stewart Steven had been due to retire as editor of the Standard at the end of the year and staff feared a drift downmarket to shore up circulation losses. Hastings's appointment will calm those concerns. "He's essentially a liberal editor," said one executive.

The mood at the Daily Telegraph is less certain. All the candidate replacements signal a sharp swing to the right - the favourite Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph; Lawson; and an outside bet, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. All of them would suit Mr Black, of course - and the person many believe is playing an increasingly important role in the Telegraph's political direction - one Mrs Black, the journalist formerly known as Barbara Amiel.

As one senior journalist says: "It's very bad news. Most of the people are here because Max put them here. None of us is a savage right-winger - and that looks like the way they will want to go."