Is this really such a soaraway idea?

Tony Blair may not get all he hopes from snuggling up to the 'Sun', says John Rentoul
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The Independent Online
Not so long ago, Labour boycotted Rupert Murdoch's newspapers in protest at the media baron's union-busting move from Fleet Street to Wapping. But yesterday, as Murdoch closed Today newspaper, Tony Blair apparently urged its readers to switch to the Labour Party's former arch-enemy - the Sun. One of Mr Blair's most striking initiatives has been his courtship of Mr Murdoch and the Sun in particular.

As home affairs spokesman, he wrote what was then a remarkable article for the Sun in March 1993. The fact that he chose the Sun was new enough, but what he said was equally surprising. "It's a bargain - we give opportunity, we demand responsibility," he wrote. "There is no excuse for crime. None."

Since then, Mr Blair has become almost a regular contributor to the Sun. The link was almost certainly Alastair Campbell, now Mr Blair's press secretary, then assistant editor of Today. "If we can get a roughly neutral playing field, we'll be doing pretty well - treating us fairly up to the election would be a significant step forward," says Mr Campbell.

When Mr Blair became Labour leader, his relationship with Mr Murdoch changed a gear. Within weeks, Der Spiegel reported Mr Murdoch saying "we" could imagine supporting Mr Blair at the next election. Informal contacts, and two meetings between the men culminated in Mr Blair's famous decision to travel half-way round the world to address the "Leadership Conference" of the NewsCorp world media empire in Australia on 17 July this year.

The visit aroused muted suspicion in the Labour Party, butappeared to pay dividends. At the end of July, the Sun greeted the result of the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election with the front-page headline: "Blair joy as Tories crushed." Only careful scrutiny of the text revealed to the Sun's 10 million readers that the Liberal Democrat Chris Davies had actually won the seat.

On the Monday night before his speech to the TUC in September, Blair's aides brought him news of a damaging leak to the next day's Guardian of a memo from polling adviser Philip Gould, which said Labour was "not ready for government". Mr Blair was dining with Mr Murdoch at the time.

Mr Blair pursued his feud with the Guardian by comparing its reporting of his speech unfavourably with the Sun's. "If you read the Sun newspaper this morning, you will see a better indication of Labour policy that actually deals with Labour policy than you will ever read in the Guardian," he said. The Sun reported his speech to the TUC under the headline "Blair blasts 'time warp' union barons".

The Sun introduced a Blair article when the Labour conference began with: "Here, Tony Blair reveals how he hopes to make Britain great again under a New Labour. New Labour, New Britain. It is exactly where we are in British politics today."

The Sun's editorials are still frequently bitterly hostile to Labour. Recently, the paper reported "secret plans" for a return to a 60p in the pound top income tax rate. "But on the whole, we have nothing like the vitriol that Neil Kinnock or even John Smith used to get," says Mr Campbell.

The latest attempt to conscript Mr Blair for News International's bid to switch readers from Today to the Sun has offended the Mirror, which today carries an "exclusive" article by Mr Blair explaining "why I am backing the crusading Daily Mirror".

Mr Campbell says he had imagined that yesterday's Blair article would be in the Sun, "and in the sense that part of the Sun was inserted into the last edition of Today, it was". But for him and for Mr Blair, getting the message across is the most important thing. "If the headline said 'Read the Sun', I would have complained," says Mr Campbell. In fact, it said "Why Sun readers are turning to Labour", and carried the essential Blair message: "The Tories posed as the friend of the decent hard-working majority. But in truth, they have always been the party of the privileged and it is Labour that is in touch with the hopes and aspirations of people who want to work hard, get on, play by the rules."

But what really matters to Mr Blair and the "New" Labour Party is the one promise the Sun flyer in yesterday's Today says it will keep. "On election day, we will tell you honestly which party we consider to be the best for you, the best for Britain."

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