Farewell to the newspaper baron who ruined the Conservative Party

Without Lord Black, the whole course of British politics might have been different over the last decade or more
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It isn't clear that the sale of his newspapers to the Barclay brothers by Conrad Black will survive the fury of the Hollinger board, which the deal bypassed. Journalistically, it may well be the best available outcome if it does, given that the alternative of the Daily Mail would be a serious blow to the plurality of press ownership, and that of Express proprietor Richard Desmond to the standards and positioning of a great Conservative newspaper.

But even if the sale does go ahead, it would be a mistake for British public life simply to move on and forget about the part played in it by the man who did the selling.

If the manifold accusations that Lord Black directed many millions of dollars of unauthorised and untaxed payments to himself and others are found to stick, this has the makings of a truly great business scandal, however much Lord Black condemns his tormentors as corporate governance "zealots". The accusations come very close to what Edward Heath once memorably described as the "unacceptable face of capitalism". To the untutored eye, the accusations seem as like as makes no difference to ones of theft.

But the other point is that the misdeeds, if that is what they were, were perpetrated by a man who has played a central part in the political and public life of this country. It is true that as a right-wing, neo-conservative newspaper proprietor deeply interested in politics, Conrad Black exercised his influence in Britain in relatively complex ways. He had an engaging habit of writing letters for publication in his newspapers, rather than applying behind-the- scenes pressure. Max Hastings, a notably strong editor who openly stood up to him, makes clear that he was sometimes open to argument.

Nor was that influence even always exercised - or solicited - in causes inimical to liberal opinion. When Charles Moore was determinedly positioning The Daily Telegraph as the cheerleader of the anti-agreement Ulster Unionists in November 1999, it was to Black that Tony Blair's Downing Street turned in the hope that he could secure a more balanced coverage of Northern Ireland affairs at a crucial stage in the fortunes of the Anglo-Irish agreement. It had an - albeit marginal - effect.

Which doesn't alter the fact that his role in British politics - most strikingly as the 1990s wore on - was anything but marginal. When John Major was struggling in office, Douglas Hurd, as he makes clear in his own memoirs, became convinced that Conrad Black was, along with Rupert Murdoch, "out to destroy" the elected Prime Minister of the day. Much more recently, it was the Black-owned Telegraph that skilfully promoted the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, despite strong doubts in much of the Tory establishment about whether he was up to the job.

Maybe it was understandable that the paper should not endorse - and actively decry - the candidacy of Ken Clarke, given that his pro-European views were anathema to the paper's editor and proprietor. Maybe too it was Charles Moore himself as editor, rather than a proprietor from whom he needed no encouragement, who decided that Portillo's candidacy should be similarly belittled. But Moore, with his high Tory, pro-hunting, deeply europhobic version of Thatcherite neo-conservatism was Black's choice when Hastings departed. And Black knew just whom he was appointing.

The rights and wrongs of these interventions aren't really the point. Rather, it's not too much to say that, without Black, the whole course of British politics might have been different over the last decade or more. As the paper to which the Tory grassroots looked above all others, the Telegraph consistently promoted what was, in the wake of Thatcher's fall, the views of her increasingly sectarian supporters in the party - at the expense of the electoral fortunes of British Conservatism.

It's true - and welcome - that The Daily Telegraph has already began to shed some of Moore's narrow ideology and socially obsolete obsessions, and under a new editor, himself appointed by Black as the problems of his financial empire began to close in on him. But whatever the other merits of the approach his papers adopted when he was at the peak of his authority, it did the British Conservative party and its power to mount an effective opposition no good at all.

This will be worth remembering if the nemesis willed for him by some of Hollinger's outraged shareholders does finally overtake Lord Black. If he had not commanded a great organ of British news and opinion, it is doubtful that he would have gained the British peerage which Jean Chrétien, the premier of his native Canada, had fought to block, until he changed his citizenship and William Hague successfully put him on his list of candidates for Tony Blair to ennoble. Nothing unprecedented in that. Moreover, as Black has himself correctly insisted, he has yet to be found guilty of the transgressions so persistently claimed against him, and is entitled not to be judged until and unless he is. Natural justice is not suspended because the defendant is rich.

But if the SEC investigation, or worse criminal proceedings, were to have such an outcome, it cannot fail to have an impact on the British establishment which took him to his bosom. At present, the Government is struggling to devise a clause in its House of Lords Reform Bill which would deprive convicted felons who have served time in prison of the right to sit in the Lords. This is vulgarly known as the Lord Archer clause, but its writ could run much wider.

Lord Archer and Lord Black are very different men. The latter has vastly more of a cultural and intellectual hinterland than the former. But both in their way are products of the Reagan-Thatcher Eighties, which valued moneymaking as perhaps no other age had done. And while Lord Archer was close - rather at times as a court jester is close - to two Tory prime ministers, Lord Black was arguably a much more powerful political player than he ever was. And if Lord Black does turn out to be guilty of diverting funds to himself in the way the current suits against him suggest, that will amount to real scandal of corporate governance - not as large in scale as Enron, no doubt - but still an outstanding one.

As it happens, their lordships are currently deeply resistant to any disqualification measure which acts retrospectively; the irony is that it is possible - depending on the timetable as well as the outcome of the investigation of Lord Black in the US - that it is he rather than Lord Archer who could lose his cherished seat in the Lords.

If he escapes the attentions of the SEC and the Hollinger shareholders now in his pursuit, this may not even arise. Even if he doesn't, he may well not end up in jail. And even if he does go to prison, many would no doubt regard it as unfair that he and not Lord Archer should lose his peerage. But perhaps there would be some poetic justice in it if he did. The greater the men, the greater the fall.