In an interview this week with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Mr Murdoch, whose editorial support is credited with having won the 1992 election for the Tories, said: 'I could even imagine myself supporting the British Labour leader, Tony Blair.'
The firmest endorsement of the proprietorial about- turn came from Peter Stothard, editor of the Times: 'I didn't know he was going to say it but it would be hard to dissent from it. I can imagine supporting Tony Blair, too, but whether I will is another matter. I know a great deal about John Major's strengths and weaknesses but so far I know more about Tony Blair's strengths. When I get to know about his weaknesses, I'll be able to make a decision.'
Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, a long-standing acquaintance of Mr Blair, yesterday called him 'the most attractive leader Labour has elected in living memory'. Mr Neil is at present on secondment to Mr Murdoch's Fox TV in New York.
The paper's acting editor, John Witherow, said that if the Sunday Times did support Mr Blair it would be because of its own assessment and not because of any instruction from the proprietor.
Piers Morgan, editor of the News of the World, said: 'Tony Blair is a very impressive character. We'll listen to what he says with very great interest.' Stuart Higgins, of the Sun, and Richard Stott, of Today, declined to comment.
Peter Bottomley, the Conservative MP who takes a close interest in the media, said that Rupert Murdoch's words came as the position of both the Labour and the Conservative parties on cross-media ownership is up for grabs. Mr Bottomley judged that Mr Murdoch, with his 35 per cent share of the UK national newspaper market and ownership of BSkyB 'fears that he will be required to divest and he is beginning to put himself up for auction'.
John Maples, the Tory party vice-chairman, judged it 'inconceivable' that the Murdoch papers 'would want, in general, to support Labour - if for no other reason than that their criticism of Mr Major and the Government has been that it has not been right-wing enough'.
Labour has a 21 point lead over the Conservatives according to an ICM poll in the Guardian today. On an unadjusted basis, Labour records a 32 point lead - similar to the lead recorded in Gallup last week. But adjusted by ICM in its attempt to overcome the distortions apparent in the last election, Labour is put on 49 per cent, up 6 points on last month, with the Tories on 28 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent and others on 5 per cent.
Leading article, page 13
Media, page 19