Will Murdoch listen to Howard? I doubt it

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The Independent Online

At his press conference last week the Prime Minister informed us that, after the "transfer of sovereignty" in Iraq, the new authority in that country would be entitled, if it chose, to tell the so-called coalition forces there to take their leave and that, moreover, the troops concerned would have to comply with the instruction. I put the phrase in inverted commas because the new governing body, whatever it turns out to be precisely, will have about as much sovereignty as the residents' association of Clem Attlee Court, in fact rather less of it.

This was certainly the view of Mr Colin Powell, the most stable, the most emollient and, accordingly, the most traduced member of the present largely crazed United States administration. Mr Powell lost no time in telling us, including Mr Tony Blair, that the troops would stay for as long as the USA wanted them to stay.

Now, it is always worth remembering that four of our great newspapers - The Sun, The Times, the News of the World and The Sunday Times - owned as they are by a US citizen, owe their primary allegiance to a foreign power, the United States. For practical purposes they are joined by The Daily and The Sunday Telegraph, which were until recently owned by a Canadian who became a British subject for reasons of convenience, so that he could accept a peerage which his native land was reluctant to see bestowed upon him. Presumably the Telegraph papers will persist more or less in their present attitudes, irrespective of who acquires them in the next few weeks. Clearly, the pro-American bias of the British press is important.

Even so, there was no disposition to minimise the gravity of the difference between Mr Powell and Mr Blair. It had not all been got up by the press (a phrase first used by Harold Macmillan over the Berlin crisis). Manifestly, there was some explaining to be done by Mr Blair. Prime Minister's Questions, with not a flour-bomb in sight, was equally clearly the most convenient place for him to do it in.

Mrs Anne Campbell, the member for Cambridge, offered the Prime Minister her devout congratulations for at last taking a stand against the United States. Whereupon Mr Blair became untypically bashful. Stand? What stand? It was as if he had been denying a story that he had once been given a trial by Newcastle United. Why, there was no conflict whatever between Britain and the United States, on this or any other matter.

It was now Mr Michael Howard's turn to have a go. To pursue the football analogy: the goalkeeper was off his line, and all Mr Howard had to do was to side-boot the ball past him and into the back of the net. Instead he gently patted the ball back to Mr Blair by asking an innocuous question about the dispatch of troops to Iraq, which the Prime Minister duly dealt with without inconvenience. About the United States there was no mention; it was a perfect and absolute blank.

The explanation is not far to seek. When, in the week before, Mr Howard made his call in The Independent for Mr Blair to show some public disagreement with Mr George Bush, there was a great row. There were stories - which struck me as largely contrived - of unrest in the constituencies, on the back benches, in what the French call le cabinet fantôme. All this may have been, no doubt was, highly gratifying to the editor of the paper in question: but perhaps it was less so to Mr Howard.

He could easily shake off the charge of "opportunism" made against him by members of a government which is more opportunistic than any since the Lloyd George Coalition won the election of 1918. The Tory press was a different matter. True, Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, while retaining their broadly Conservative characteristics, support Mr Blair's government, some of them slavishly so. It is one of the aberrant features of the present state of affairs. But, together with the Daily Mail, they are all Mr Howard has.

They are certainly friendlier to him than they ever were to either of his immediate predecessors, and with good reason. For unlike them, he looks as if, just about, he could be Prime Minister. Even Mr John Major did not look like a prime minister, and he actually was one, for seven years, no less. Accordingly Mr Howard is, in modern Conservative terms, a novelty: a politician who could conceivably occupy No 10 without manifest oddness or anachronism.

And - who knows? - his luck could change. He has already journeyed halfway across the world to address Mr Murdoch's lackeys in some no doubt salubrious but certainly inconvenient spot; just as Mr Blair did all those years ago. Could the light of Mr Murdoch's countenance shine on Mr Howard as it once did, as it still does, on Mr Blair?

On Europe, Mr Blair's weak point - which, to retain Mr Murdoch's favour, he has recently had to reinforce by means of the promise of a constitutional referendum - Mr Howard is as sound as can reasonably be expected. He had given every indication of being similarly reliable on the Anglo-American relationship: not perhaps as dedicated as Mr Blair, for that would indeed be difficult, but faithful enough to Uncle Sam for all practical purposes.

Then came his article, in The Independent, of all papers. No wonder Mr Murdoch was vexed: all the more so because The Times has so far, unlike The Independent, failed to produce a successful compact paper, a change which Mr Murdoch is determined to foist on its readers whether they like it or not.

As we know, pro-Americanism did not start with Mr Murdoch. It has been part of official England ever since our disastrous acceptance of the American loan just after the last war. One of the politicians to vote against the loan was a young Labour MP called Jim Callaghan. He later became one of the most Atlanticist prime ministers of the last century. But then, after 1945 they all were, with the sole exception of Edward Heath - though Mr Blair is even more that way inclined than the others have been.

Independence of the USA is a cause in which most voters believe, despite their liking for American food and American films, but which has gone unrepresented and unrecognised by the political parties, except for a few individuals: with Labour, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot and, with the Conservatives, Heath, Enoch Powell and Alan Clark. Mr Howard, by chance, got this right, but is now in the process of rapid retreat. It will be paradoxical if the beneficiary turns out to be Mr Charles Kennedy, who comes from what is, historically, a pro-American party too.