Press barons enticed by charm offensive

One day the Murdoch press is hailing Tony Blair as the greatest visionary since John F Kennedy, the next the chairman of that other bastion of Tory support, Associated Newspapers, teasingly holds out the prospect of backing the Labour leader at the general election.

Never mind the aspirin, Tory party spin doctors are reaching for the carving knife and beginning to size up their wrists.

While Sir David English's musings in this week's Spectator fall well short of a commitment to back Labour, they are an intriguing subtext to the right-wing press's general warming to Mr Blair.

The apparent love affair between Rupert Murdoch and Mr Blair began last year with dinner in London, continued with an invitation to the Labour leader to address a conference hosted by the tycoon on a Pacific island, and approached consummation this week.

On Wednesday the Sun hailed Mr Blair's Brighton speech as "the most remarkable ever made to a Labour conference", Today called it an escape from the "sterile and barren wasteland" of politics under this government, and even the Times said the Tories would find the modern day JFK's moral crusade "as difficult to ape as it will be to criticise".

According to Sir David's diary, Associated's relationship with Mr Blair began over lunch.While it appears to have blossomed on a personal level, the real test of any rapprochement between new Labour and old Associated will be in its newspapers.

Since Paul Dacre, a trenchant right-winger, moved to the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard has adopted a more fluid, liberal political line. Of the traditionally right-wing press, it alone backed John Major in the Conservative leadership contest. On Wednesday, it rhapsodised over Mr Blair's "inspirational" conference speech: "The Tories have in him an opponent to be taken seriously. Silly vituperation will not do: they have to come up to his standard of seriousness and intellectual weight."

The Daily Mail has been a stormtrooper for the right, concluding after the ditching of Clause Four that "the Labour leopard has not changed its spots". After Mr Blair's home truths speech to the TUC last month, the paper had mellowed but still felt Mr Blair was "long on emotional commitment and short on detail".

Then came Brighton. The Daily Mail wondered how Mr Blair would fund his vision and whether a Labour government could balance the books. But the admiration was evident. "His conference speech was a tour de force, brilliantly pitched to heal the divisions within his own party while speaking to the heart of the nation as a whole," it reported.

When Mr Blair returns from Brighton, perhaps there will be a more daring invitation to dinner on his doormat, franked Associated Newspapers.