Murdoch says he could imagine backing Blair

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TONY BLAIR, whose election as party leader has seen Labour break new ground right, left and centre, yesterday won another endorsement from a more surprising quarter.

Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News International and a firm admirer of Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, declared that even he could imagine himself supporting Mr Blair.

This compliment from the proprietor of three of the Conservative party's staunchest newspaper supporters - the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun - appeared in an interview Mr Murdoch gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

He was challenged over the support his newspapers gave to Conservative politicians in his three main areas of operation - Britain, the United States and Australia. Mr Murdoch protested, adding: 'We supported many Labor politicians in Australia; we also helped Harold Wilson, the British Labour prime minister.'

When the interviewer pointed out that was rather a long time ago, Mr Murdoch protested: 'Only last year we helped the Labor government in Canberra. I could even imagine myself supporting the British Labour leader, Tony Blair.'

Mr Murdoch's words come after a week in which Labour has recorded a record lead of more than 33 points in a Gallup poll. Party membership was revealed to have grown by 10,000 and parts of business and industry have shown a new interest in Labour's position and chances.

Friends of Mr Blair - who is on holiday and has not seen the interview - seized on the single sentence in a lengthy interview as 'further evidence that the political landscape is changing'. Conservative sources were much less sure what to make of it - any shift to Labour in the political stance of Mr Murdoch's main titles would horrify them. In the past year they have seen the papers bitterly attack John Major's leadership, and any more formal endorsement of Mr Blair would lead to suspicions that Mr Murdoch was acting to protect his media empire from possible attack by a Labour government.

News International sources confirmed Mr Murdoch's words but played down their significance, while a spokesman re- iterated Mr Murdoch's official line - despite his use of the company 'we' in the interview - that editorial policy is 'the sole responsibility of the editors'. Sources also pointed out that Today, with the smallest circulation of Mr Murdoch's national titles, has been Labour-leaning since the last general election.

Mr Blair's supporters, while 'encouraged' by the media mogul's words, admitted: 'It doesn't mean we have the Times and the Sun in the bag.'