Bruce Anderson: A breach of trust that cost Brown the support of The Sun

Murdoch's defection will add to the sense of decay surrounding the Government
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Whatever you think of The Sun newspaper, it does not fire blank cartridges. When it decides to attack, it marches to war with horse, foot and guns. At first light yesterday, The Sun invaded Gordon Brown. There was no accident in the timing. The paper launched its offensive during a Labour conference which was one of Mr Brown's last chances to rehabilitate himself with the voters. The Sun likes to hit its targets.

No wonder the PM was in a filthy mood during his television appearances yesterday morning. With The Sun no longer shining, the whole Sky darkened. Perhaps because he too works for Rupert Murdoch, Adam Boulton of Sky TV felt the weight of the PM's displeasure. As Gordon Brown grizzled and gurned his way through the interview, the audience will have realised what it is like to work for the Incredible Sulk in 10 Downing Street.

Amid the many pages of battering, The Sun did make a few kind remarks about the Brown family. Even so, there is no way back. It is like the early stages of a divorce between a couple who think that they are determined to remain friends. In six weeks' time, via the lawyers, they will be scratching each other's eyes out.

This is the end of an era. Almost as soon as he became Labour leader, Tony Blair began to court Rupert Murdoch. Mr Blair remembered 1992 and The Sun's relentless persecution of Neil Kinnock. "IT'S THE SUN WOT WON IT," the paper boasted after John Major's victory. Tony Blair was determined that The Sun should help him to win it. He succeeded.

Just before the 1997 election, I was on a plane to Moscow, part of a small press group accompanying the then Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo (how the years pass; what changes they bring). Mr Portillo told us what he had just heard from London. The Sun would be backing Mr Blair. Even before that news, the Tories present were not exactly overflowing with optimism. Here was more of the cold wind of impending defeat.

It is doubtful if everyone in the Labour party was overflowing with gratitude. The Sun is strong meat. It has often aroused hostility on the Left and hypocrisy on the Right. Old-fashioned Tories will complain about a Channel Four programme about bizarre sexual practices, even though it was broadcast late at night and had a four-figure viewership in the Greater London area alone. They will then avert their gaze from The Sun, with its somewhat larger circulation. The Sun is in a tradition of brawling English bawdry which goes back through Fielding, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Squire Western, Toby Belch and Chaucer's Miller would all have been Sun readers. But the Right will never complain about The Sun's licentiousness, because it wants The Sun's support.

The Left often complained, until it secured the paper's support. The Sun had never been the newspaper of choice for the Sisterhood. Assuming that they ever opened their office copy, it is unlikely that Cherie Blair and Harriet Harman smiled tolerantly as they skipped past Page 3. But they were prepared to pay a price for victory. So was Tony Blair.

Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun's political commentator, became No 10's favourite journalist. If the Prime Minister had arrived back in Downing Street to be told that the Governor of the Bank of England, the Editor of The Times and Trevor Kavanagh all wanted a word, he would have said: "Could you get me Trevor on the line?"

Trevor has always been a Tory, but The Sun's switch of allegiance was not his decision. It was taken by another Australian, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Murdoch has a sardonic attitude towards most politicians. He once described Peter Mandelson as a "star-fucker". The sort of Aussie who regards all Poms as woofters and Etonians as off the woofter scale, he has enjoyed teasing David Cameron. But there have been two exceptions: two British politicians who did command his respect. The first was Margaret Thatcher: the second, Tony Blair.

This was nothing to do with any sycophancy which Mr Blair may have displayed. It was the Iraq War wot won it. Mr Murdoch knew that it was not easy for any British Labour leader to give the Americans such robust support and he admired Tony Blair's steadfastness. In 2005, without overwhelming enthusiasm, The Sun continued to back Labour. Aware that this would be Mr Blair's last election, Mr Murdoch wanted to pay him a final war dividend.

That was easier, because a potential source of dispute had been removed: the EU constitution. Whatever his occasional doubts about Britain, Rupert Murdoch has invariably taken a robustly patriotic stance on Europe, so much so that he deserves a posthumous pardon for any of his ancestors that were transported. But Tony Blair used The Sun to announce that there would be a referendum. Mr Murdoch was delighted, the Eurosceptics felt relieved, the Euro-fanatics were dismayed. They were all misled. None of them realised that the Government would break its word.

This breach of trust always made it unlikely that The Sun would support Gordon Brown. Rupert Murdoch was also aware that Gordon Brown had never given Tony Blair his loyal support on Iraq – or on anything else. Moreover, Mr Murdoch has another prejudice; he prefers winners to losers. He will be aware of Labour's standing in the polls.

The Sun's defection will have delighted a few old Labourites who think that the last 12 years have been a terrible mistake, and who are desperate for a final few months of class warfare. Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson know better; hence the PM's gloom, even by his standards.

So how much does this matter? Can The Sun win it? There is a simple answer to those questions. We do not know. One suspects, however, that the political class tends to exaggerate the role of the media. After all, readers and viewers can be divided into two groups. There are those who have views of their own, which will not change merely because a newspaper argues against them. Then there are those who are not very interested in politics. They may not even read the political pages. In The Sun's case, they will skip straight from page 3 to the sports pages.

The Sun's defection will add to the sense of decay and death which now surrounds this government. More of the circus animals have deserted. But of itself, it is not a fatal wound, any more than it was in 1997 or in 1992. By the time The Sun switched its allegiance in 1997, the Tories were already doomed. Rupert Murdoch was merely rushing to the aid of the victor. After 1992, some head-banging malcontents on the Tory right were inclined to talk up The Sun's role, for their own reasons. They could not bear to see the credit go to John Major and his evident decency.

There is one difference. In 1992, Mr Murdoch could not be accused of allowing the opinion polls to influence his attitude. For most of that campaign, Neil Kinnock was in the lead. In his case, that did not matter. To be fair to both men, they could never have been allies. If they had been two dogs, they would have rushed across a busy road to have a fight. The Sun did, of course, start life as the Daily Herald. In 1992, the notion that the paper would ever again support Labour seemed about as likely as the resurrection of Keir Hardie. We had all reckoned without Tony Blair.

The Labour party is now having to adjust to post-Blair politics. The loss of The Sun is a part of that change – but only a part. There are many other symptoms of fatality.