When David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, announced that he was fighting a by-election to rescue the Magna Carta from "the ever-intrusive power of the state", it was going to take a very brave man, or a very foolish one, to march into the fray in defence of that ever-intrusive power.
Step forward Kelvin MacKenzie. The former Fleet Street editor and media mogul has time on his hands. Last month, he ran for a council seat in Weybridge. Now he says that he is 90 per cent likely to take on Mr Davis in the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election, with the backing from his old boss, Rupert Murdoch.
It promises to be a lively fight. The contestants have much in common: both are right-wing, anti-EU, pro-hanging Tories. But Davis is quietly spoken, tough, grew up on a council estate, and is concerned for civil liberties; MacKenzie is an ex-public school boy with a loud mouth who thinks that civil liberties are the sort of thing that most concern people with sandals and body odour.
"The reality is that actually I don't view my civil liberties as being at risk, but I do view my life being at risk if I am on the Tube or train and some bad guy wants to blow me or my family up. I am willing to do anything to avoid that," MacKenzie said yesterday. "I don't feel constantly threatened by CCTV. I don't feel worried about ID cards. If I am not doing anything wrong, I don't feel I am under any threat."
He revealed that Rupert Murdoch suggested he should stand, and he was counting on the support of the nation's biggest-selling tabloid. "I would be doing it on behalf of The Sun. I have been associated with The Sun for 30-odd years and so I have an umbilical cord to the paper," he said. "The Sun is very, very hostile to David Davis because of his 28 days stand and The Sun has always been up for 42 days or perhaps 420 days, frankly, and secondly this is a bizarre cost to the tax payer. I don't think it is right that he should just be allowed to have a walkover."
One possibility that ought to give MacKenzie pause is that he might actually win. If the 10 July by-election is really to be fought on the single issue of civil rights – which is what Mr Davis says he wants – polling evidence suggests that public opinion is with MacKenzie and The Sun. About twice as many members of the public favour detaining terrorist suspects for 42 days as are opposed. There is no evidence that the division of opinion in Haltemprice and Howden is markedly different.
But against that, there is MacKenzie's rich track record for insulting people who live north of Watford. The most famous example of his insensitivity towards northerners was The Sun's coverage of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, in Sheffield in April 1989, when 96 fans were crushed to death. Under the headline "The Truth" – written by MacKenzie in person – The Sun blamed the catastrophe on drunken Liverpool fans, a misjudgement that had knocked a huge hole in the paper's sales figures on Merseyside.
MacKenzie also caused ripples of offence on Tyneside over the recent government bail-out of Northern Rock. "I don't wish to appear Northernist," he wrote, "but would my money have been made available if the Worthing Building Society had got into trouble?" And in December, he was threatened with a police investigation for an outburst on television against the Scots, who are, in his estimation, "spongers", forever demanding money from the English. "The Scots enjoy spending it. They do not enjoy creating it, which is the opposite of the South. Scotland believes not in entrepreneurialism like in London and the South-east," he said.
Yesterday, even as he was touring the television studios saying that it was "90 per cent certain" that he would enter his name for the by-election, he added another gaffe that will not endear to the electorate of Haltemprice and Howden, which is the Yorkshire East Riding, adjoining Hull. Off camera, he said to a BBC producer: "Have you ever been to Hull? It's a shocker, an absolute shocker." The comment was caught on tape.
Victory would surely bring nothing but misery for MacKenzie. It is one thing to criticise and insult MPs, something he has done so well for so many years, but he would find that being an MP, a friendless, partyless MP, open to the sort of mockery that he has dished out so often, having to make regular trips between London and the north, would be very hard going indeed. At the peak of his career, it was unthinkable that he would debase himself by running for elected office. As editor of The Sun, he was so much more important than any elected politician. He made that abundantly clear when he was called in front of the Commons national heritage committee, supposedly to face a grilling about his newspaper's intrusive irresponsibility. MacKenzie ran rings around the MPs, and casually remarked that Camilla Parker Bowles was in a sexual relationship with Prince Charles, a fact known on the London gossip circle but not previously aired in so public a forum.
Later, John Major became concerned that The Sun was abandoning the partisan loyalty it had shown to the Conservatives throughout MacKenzie's editorship, encapsulated in that famous boast, after Labour's 1992 defeat, that "It was The Sun wot won it". Major rang MacKenzie, hoping for reassurance. He was bound to be disappointed, because Rupert Murdoch had already decided that his newspapers were going to swing behind New Labour now that it was obviously the winning side, so MacKenzie – always his master's voice in such matters – could only choose between letting the prime minister down politely, or being rude. He chose to be rude. "Well, John, let me put it this way," he said. "I've got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I'm going to pour it all over your head."
Born in 1946, MacKenzie grew up in south London, still his spiritual home although he now inhabits a £2m house on a new estate on the outskirts of Weybridge, Surrey, that looks just like a setting for Footballers' Wives. Despite his "voice of the people" manner, his background was comfortable. He was educated at Alleyns, a private school in Dulwich, south London. He left at the age of 17, with just one O-level under his belt, to become a reporter. "I was born to be a journalist. My father was a journalist. My mother's a journalist. My wife's a journalist. My brother's a journalist. My daughter's a journalist. I would die if I stopped being a journalist. However, that does not stop me having a business brain," he once said.
It was his brash confidence and right-wing views that appealed to Rupert Murdoch. Like Murdoch, MacKenzie despised the old class-ridden Conservative Party, but idolised Margaret Thatcher. One the first big stories he handled as editor was the Falklands War, which allowed him to give vent to his xenophobic patriotism. When the Argentine warship General Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 323 lives, The Sun ran the gloating headline "Gotcha!". When the French banned the sale of English lamb, MacKenzie launched his "Hop Off You Frogs" campaign. Later, his target was the EU commissioner, Jacques Delors, who was promoting European currency union (ECU). Under the slogan "Up Yours Delors", MacKenzie exhorted: "At midday tomorrow Sun readers are urged to tell the French fool where to stuff his ECU."
His urge to humiliate was not reserved exclusively for foreigners, however. Employees had good reason to fear the merciless humour and occasional brutality of their boss. Others might laugh at the letter of dismissal he sent to The Sun's astrologer, which began with the words "as you will already know...". And there is the famous tale of "Higgy the human sponge". Stuart Higgins was a junior reporter for The Sun, who showed an unusual ability to smile calmly through the editor's raging tantrums. This only infuriated MacKenzie all the more. He put an announcement in The Sun inviting readers who were having a bad day to ring up Higgins, on his direct line, and abuse him. There were more than 1,000 calls. But Higgy the Sponge survived to become MacKenzie's deputy, and successor. Matthew Wright, the Five television presenter who worked on The Sun as a young journalist, recalled: "If he humiliated you but you came back smiling, you knew you were one of his gang and he would look after you."
MacKenzie once observed: "A number of things will happen to editors normally. They either burn out, or turn to drink, or they become a mixture of ego and alcohol, right? They start thinking they're running the country..." His own glory days ended in 1994. Though he went on to make a great deal of money, particularly as head of the consortium that bought out the company that runs talkSPORT, he was never able to match the glory of editing a mass circulation newspaper, or the celebrity status of his old protégé and fellow ex-editor, Piers Morgan. He returned to The Sun as a weekly columnist in 2006, but without quite matching the flair of the paper's foremost right-wing demagogue, Jon Gaunt.
Earlier this year, he was sufficiently enraged by a hike in the parking charges at Weybridge station to run for a seat in the local council. Representing the Red Mist party, of which he was at that time the sole member, he collected a respectable 227 votes, against 679 for the incumbent Tory councillor. MacKenzie has naturally made enemies in his colourful career. They included the boxing promoter Frank Warren, who pithily summed him up: "He gives it all that jack-the-lad, I'm-one-of the-blokes shit, but he's not. He comes from a middle-class family and talks absolute bollocks. He strikes me as a bully, and like all bullies they come unstuck."
If Kelvin MacKenzie goes to Yorkshire, gains a lot of publicity for himself and his newspaper, embarrasses the Conservative Party, offends everyone who cares about civil rights, and takes a face-saving second place in the poll, he will be fine. It is only if he comes back as Kelvin MacKenzie MP that he could come seriously unstuck.
A Life in Brief
Born 22 October 1946, in south London
Family All journalists. His son, Ashley, worked with him in the Wireless Group. His brother Craig was a Sun journalist when he was editor.
Education Alleyn's School, Dulwich, one O-level
Career Joined the South East London Mercury at 17, and worked on local and national newspapers for 10 years; 1978-80, managing editor, New York Post; 1980-81, night editor, The Sun; 1981-82, night editor, Daily Express; 1982-94, editor, The Sun; January-July 1994, managing director, BSkyB; 1994-98, managing director, Mirror Television; January-June 1998, deputy chief executive and group managing director, Mirror Group; June 1998-present, chairman and chief executive, the Wireless Group
He says "I was born to be a journalist."
They Say "He comes from a middle-class family and talks absolute bollocks" – Frank Warren, boxing promoter