Bruce Anderson: Who will gain the favour of the Sun's King?

It is to Murdoch's credit that sycophancy merely arouses his contempt
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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch ought to be worried. His standing is under threat. He used to enjoy a clear lead in the one league table that he values on a par with his circulation figures: the International bien-pensantry's hate-list. He has now been overtaken by George Bush, and if Tony Blair attends many more Murdoch conferences, Mr Murdoch's second place will be under threat.

It is hard not to admire the coolness with which our Prime Minister conveys his contempt for the Labour Party. At least half his cabinet is desperately unhappy, as is a majority of his MPs. Yet Mr Blair's message is unchanged: that the only mistake which the Israelis have made is not to kill enough Hizbollah quickly enough. Having given Mr Bush his backing Mr Blair flies on to receive Mr Murdoch's blessing. It is impossible to withhold one's admiration.

It would be wrong to interpret this as a cynical manoeuvre: Tony Blair is merely performing his feudal duties to The Sun's King. The Murdoch/Blair relationship has deeper roots than that; it is also much more affectionate. We know that Mr Blair would far rather spend time with President Bush than with any Labour MP; the same may well apply to Rupert Murdoch.

Mr Murdoch has always had a complex attitude to Britain. A Republican, he is neither a natural Tory nor a contented member of the establishment. The chippyness of the convict colony always gets in the way. These resentments help to explain Rupert Murdoch's attitude to Margaret Thatcher. He believed that she shared his antipathy to traditional England. In that, he was mistaken. Mrs Thatcher, a devout monarchist, had no class grievances. She had nothing against aristocrats and traditional figures, as long as they agreed with her.

Mr Murdoch had more soundly based reasons for supporting Mrs Thatcher. By bringing the trade unions within the law, she made Wapping possible. By promoting home and share ownership, she seemed to be building a Britain fit for Sun readers. One further development was necessary to ensure the permanence of the Thatcherite reforms; the Labour Party had to be transformed. This required Tony Blair: the man who made the Labour Party go under the yoke and move to Wapping. That earned him Mr Murdoch's unstinted gratitude even before his resolute support for George Bush confirmed it.

During the last election, The Sun was much less anti-Tory than in 1997 or 2001. At moments, it seemed incapable of containing its enthusiasm for Michael Howard. But it was made clear that on polling day, The Sun would be endorsing Tony Blair. Its proprietor felt that he owed Tony a final favour.

Once Mr Blair departs, two questions will arise: how will Mr Murdoch jump, and how important will that be in electoral terms? The latter is easily answered: The Sun readership is more volatile in its allegiance than the purchasers of other newspapers. Though this does not mean that Sun readers will do whatever the paper's leaders tell them, no sensible politician would wish to shut out the sunlight.

So how can the contenders win over Mr Murdoch? There is an easy answer: force of intellectual argument. Mr Murdoch recently said that before making up his mind, he wanted to watch Gordon Brown and David Cameron slug it out for 18 months or so, rather like two jackeroos in an improvised boxing ring on some remote sheep station. This is not an unreasonable attitude. No serious candidate for the premiership ought to be afraid of a knock-down debate.

It is also to Mr Murdoch's credit that he is not interested in any fawning-spaniel competition. Sycophancy would merely arouse his contempt. David Cameron's new style of Conservatism does create a problem. Rather than hear tales of tree-hugging, Rupert Murdoch would prefer to listen to the war drums of the 1980s. If the Tory leader was wise he would refuse to make any concessions and confine himself to a vigorous exposition of his strategy.

It would be no use Mr Murdoch leaving the table and thinking: "That young fellow did his best to suck up to me. Typical bloody Etonian. I'll show him." Far better that the proprietor should think: "Well, he doesn't share all of my views, and I don't share all of his, but he gives a good account of himself and clearly knows his own mind."

There are no guarantees, only uncertainties; but I would venture a prediction that within two or three years, to deploy the Marxist phrase, Rupert Murdoch will be giving critical support to David Cameron and The Sun will shine on the Conservative Party.