The odd couple on honeymoon in the Sun

Donald Macintyre assesses the new relationship between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch
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Indy Politics
The Sun's coverage yesterday of Tony Blair's speech to the Murdoch conference in Australia was very nearly as interesting as the speech itself.

Not only was it given handsome four-column treatment across page two, but in a long and thoughtful editorial, the speech was discussed in terms which must kindle at least some Labour hopes that Britain's biggest-selling daily newspaper could actually endorse its leader for the general election.

The Sun cited with cautious approval one of the central features of the Blair message, that New Labour is neither new right nor old left.

The leading article bore all the hallmarks of Chris Roycroft-Davis, the news- paper's chief leader writer and assistant editor, and one of several editorial executives at News International who have met and been impressed by Mr Blair in the last six months.

According to one news- paperman present at the conference, Mr Murdoch described his special guest as one of the "youngest and most outstanding political leaders in the world today", adding: "We are surely honoured and flattered by his presence."

Mr Murdoch also congratulated Mr Blair for his "courage" - reportedly adding wryly that his own organisation had also shown courage, since the invitation to Mr Blair would probably destroy "the last vestiges of goodwill with John Major's government".

Mr Blair's aides are falling over themselves to make it clear they are not banking on support from the Murdoch empire, with the exception of pro-Labour Today.

Mr Blair has a realistic view of the fickleness of newspaper proprietors. There is also every likelihood that figures more credible to Mr Murdoch than Mr Major, for example Michael Heseltine, will urge the media magnate to break off his flirtation with the Labour leader before the general election.

One reason for the blossoming affair is the growing disenchantment of the News International titles with John Major. Those who think that their consensus in the recent leadership contest that Mr Major should go was merely pique at the White Paper on media diversity have not read their cuttings.

Cabinet ministers now talk in private, in terms similar to those used by the Bennites in the early 1980s, of the unchecked power of foreign newspaper owners. Douglas Hurd recently told colleagues that he now knew what it was like to be a leader of the Labour Party.

We already have Mr Murdoch's word that he will leave the editors of the Times and the Sunday Times to decide their own line, but that he has no compunction in advising the Sun.

On Europe - the one issue where the Sun leader yesterday explicitly took issue with Mr Blair - the Labour leader was uncompromising at the Murdoch conference, while making the telling point that Labour would be "honest" in seeking a global role though leadership in Europe.

But it was clear that in his emphasis on the post-Thatcherite anti-establishment radicalism of his vision - not to mention the trading importance of the Asia-Pacific region- he struck a real chord.

If one or two more News International papers were to endorse Labour it would offset the old- style Tory patrisanship of the Express group and the Daily Mail. Tony Blair can expect, more than any Labour leader since the early 1960s, a press which does not distort the Labour message through the sort of filter which it was Neil Kinnock's lot never to escape.