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The Daily Telegraph has turned on John Major. Paul Vallely charts his souring relationship with the Tory press barons
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John Major, you would think, must be well used to such condemnation by now. "With this government the whole is much worse than the sum of the parts," thundered the editorial. "Conservative MPs talking to alienated supporters in their constituencies tell us the most common answer to the question 'What is wrong with this government?' is 'Everything.' "

But this was the Daily Telegraph, the natural home of Toryism and worse was to come. "People have no belief in the men or the measures, no expectation that they will be told the truth, no impression of competence, no faith or hope or charity."

The days were already long gone when Private Eye could refer to the paper as the Daily Torygraph. But yesterday's broadside - "to refrain from general criticism and concentrate on the particular is to miss the point" - marked a dramatic new low in the relationship between the Conservative Party and the paper once regarded as its house journal.

Disenchantment with the present government is nothing new for the Tory press. After years of increasingly strident criticism, most papers finally parted company with Mr Major during last year's contest for the leadership of the party. "No escape route without a new leader," pontificated the Times. "Britain deserves better than continued drift and dither," opined the Daily Mail. "Major could not lead a cinema queue. He is damaged goods, a loser," railed the Sun more demotically.

The words reflected the growing contempt of the three most important Tory press barons - Rupert Murdoch of News International, Lord Rothermere of Associated Newspapers and Conrad Black of the Telegraph group. Two of this group have even begun to flirt publicly with the Labour leader, Tony Blair. Only last week Rothermere announced that one of his papers might go so far as to tell its readers to vote Labour.

But it is the disloyalty of the Telegraph - the voice of the shires and the most influential paper among backbench Tories - that causes most pain in Conservative circles. There, too, the disgruntlement is deep-seated. "It is time for Mr Major to go, and give another leader the opportunity to save the Tories," the paper said at the time of the leadership contest.

The editorial was written not by one of the new-right ideologues so favoured by Conrad Black but by the paper's then editor, Max Hastings, an old-school pragmatic Tory for whom decency was more important than economic correctness. "Ceaseless fudge, muddle, compromise and obfuscation", he argued, had left the electorate "ignorant of what the Tories believe they hold power for, save to keep themselves in work".

If a one-nation Tory patrician could allow the Telegraph to advocate the disposal of a sitting Conservative prime minister what might happen when the ideologues took over? There was much concern in Major's circles when Charles Moore, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, was moved to take charge of the daily. "His rabid anti-Europe stuff was tolerable on Sundays," said one Major insider, "but not in the daily. It made it too mainstream."

A month or so after Moore took over he and Conrad Black were invited to Sunday lunch at Chequers - a rare honour for journalists. It was a concerted attempt to woo the Telegraph group back into the fold. Among the Tory big guns also wheeled out were the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, the Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney, and the right-wing Eurosceptical leader of the Tories in the House of Lords, Viscount Cranborne. A number of other senior Telegraph figures were invited, including the new editor of the Sunday, Dominic "son of Nigel" Lawson, the editor of the Spectator, Frank Johnson and the European Commissioners' chief hate-figure, Boris Johnson.

The happy days of Max Hastings and Douglas Hurd putting the world to rights over lunch at the Travellers might be long gone but ministers thought the Telegraph might return to the fold just as the Mail has (it has been running strong anti-Labour material for months now).

But any hope that Moore, who was the prototype young fogey in his youth, would turn into a traditional fat-bottomed Conservative in his middle years was forlorn. Among his first moves was to import from the Sunday paper his two favourite leader writers, Paul Goodman and Dean Godson, whose style was vigorous, amusingly arch and very right-wing. The views of the couple (who swiftly came to be irreverently known as Pearl and Dean) opened up a gap between the new and old Telegraph camps. "I know that you think we're a bunch of homosexual fuckwits," said Moore to the paper's news editor David Sapsted, a robust hard newsman of the old school, "but we know what we're doing."

The result is a much closer reflection of the hard-right views of the Telegraph proprietor, the Canadian media magnate Conrad Black. This is what might have been expected. When Black bought the Jerusalem Post he turned its editorial policy on its head, transforming the line of the leading Israeli paper from a dove-ish to a hawkish one virtually overnight. The views in yesterday's leader - "cutting taxes, including capital taxes, and spending so that Labour would either limp behind them or be forced out into the open and declare its tax-and-spend philosophy" and abandoning the vision of Europe embodied not just in the single currency but in the whole of the Maastricht treaty - were pure Black.

They were also pure John Redwood. In the days when Redwood was still a Cabinet minister he was invited to lunch at the Telegraph. Perhaps significantly Max Hastings did not turn up, leaving it to his then deputy Simon Heffer to host. Evidence of the Black attachment to Redwood was also provided by Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times. When Hastings quit unexpectedly, Black approached Neil, who recounted at the time the Canadian's attachment to the politics of Redwood and Portillo. One of the stumbling blocks between the two men was Neil's insistence that, in the view of the general public, both are unelectable.

Conspiracy theorists will therefore draw nourishment from the fact that Charles Moore - who supported John Redwood in the leadership contest - had lunch with the former Cabinet malcontent on Tuesday - the day before the blistering editorial was written. "But the idea is not to suggest that Major should be dumped," said one Telegraph insider yesterday. "We just want to put some lead in his pencil."

Mainstream Tories are furious. "What's important about this trumpeting clique," said one yesterday. "The Telegraph is owned by a foreigner who may be bright but who has little understanding of British culture. It is edited by an old Etonian who's probably never been in a comprehensive in his life. And it is written by a bunch of clever prats who have no grounding in the kind of journalism which would ever have got them out on the streets and in contact with real life. The answer to Blair's radical centrism is not to lurch to the right like this. If these people have a hand in shaping a post-defeat Tory party they will lead it into fantasy land."

It will, of course, be more complicated than that. Newspapers influence not through their leader columns - few people actually read them, market researchers say. But they do shape readers' view of the world by choosing material carefully crafted to amuse and titillate readers and underpin their prejudices. Thus the politics of the Sun rests in its world view circumscribed by fear, greed and sex; those of the Mail lie in its preoccupation with taxation, house prices and family values and public morals. The real question is: can the Telegraph translate its Europhobia from its opinion column to its news and features pages?

And this is where it runs up against the paradox that paralyses the heart of modern Conservatism. The days of Thatcherite simplism are over. There is a contradiction in the Conservative economic and cultural world views. Economically Tories must be in favour of the new global capitalism. But its ruthless modernising of the economy - with its downsizing and contract culture - has now hit the middle classes as much as spasms in manufacturing once hurt the working classes. In a globalised economy we are all working-class. If key conservative cultural values are to be maintained then compromises may have to be made in subsuming our Britishness into a European-ness that can fend off some of the most dire effects of unfettered competition from the Pacific Rim. In all this there can be no plain-as-pikestaff Tory slogans any more.

The Conservative Party, the Telegraph leader fulminated, "now resembles a dinosaur, having a very small head and a very large body. The head is Euro-enthusiast and the body is Euro-sceptic." An unhappy metaphor, not least because the head, however small, is where the brain resides. More than that, the dinosaurs all died out. It was not that they failed to adapt. Rather the times changed around them.