Political Commentary: Few crumbs for Major from the rich men's tabloids

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The Independent Online
THESE days I find I go to parties more reluctantly than I used to. It may be advancing years. But I am also becoming weary of being asked the same questions. One is: 'How much longer can John Major last?' The other is: 'And how are things at the Independent?' As the former question is (as Mr Major himself would say) very considerably easier to answer than the latter, I now turn to it.

There are two crucial differences between Mr Major's position and that of his recent predecessors. Both differences are connected with the newspapers. The Conservative papers have turned against him as against no other Conservative prime minister this century. The Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator were unfriendly from the very beginning. The other difference is that - despite their unpopularity with the public and the contempt in which they are held by politicians and the political class generally - the Conservative tabloid papers now have more influence within the party than at any time since the golden age of the political press between 1880 and 1914.

In those days, as we know, influence was exercised differently. The papers themselves were different. Speeches in the country were extensively reported, proceedings in Parliament covered at possibly excessive length. Leading articles roared away, to the apprehension and alarm of those members of the government who were on the receiving end.

Historians thought those days were ended, with influence passing to television. They were partly right, which is why politicians try to retain such close control over the electronic media. But the historians neglected several factors. They failed to foresee - or to realise the significance of - the democratisation of the Conservative Party which had begun, not even with Lady Thatcher, but with the election of Sir Edward Heath as leader almost 30 years ago. Nor did they understand the significance of Mr Rupert Murdoch.

For the Sun was originally the creation of Lord Cudlipp in 1964. It was the successor to the old Daily Herald. The Herald, Cudlipp considered, was old-fashioned, predictable, tied to the Labour Party line, assuming that could be discerned. He would launch a new paper. It was billed as 'the paper born of the age we live in'. It would be of progressive slant and leftward inclination. It would take account of what, 30 years ago, was thought to be the improvement in schooling since 1945. It would be educative and improving. Its first editor was the distinguished Labour journalist Sydney Jacobson. It would, in short, try to appeal to the best rather than to the worst in human nature.

Naturally, it was a failure until Mr Murdoch took it over. He had long grasped that the working classes did not want to be - actively objected to being - educated, improved or the recipients of appeals to their better nature. After a short initial period of supporting Labour, the Sun turned to the Conservatives. The paper and Lady Thatcher ('Battling Maggie') were made for each other, sharing as they did a South London view of human nature which has perhaps unfairly been imposed on the county of Essex. She struck a Faustian bargain with the Sun and the other Conservative tabloids, handing out knighthoods to the editors and life peerages to those proprietors who were prepared to accept them (for Mr Murdoch was not, and was a United States citizen anyway, while Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail had a perfectly good peerage of his own already).

Now see how it has all gone wrong. Only Sir Nicholas Lloyd of the Express, who last week was having a companionable lunch with Sir David English of the Mail, remains steady on parade. Mr Stewart Steven of the London Evening Standard, as yet unknighted, occasionally writes an encomium of Mr Major under his own name which in admiration goes further than anything to be found elsewhere in the columns of his own paper. These small crumbs of consolation apart, the table is bare.

The Daily Telegraph (whose editor, it is said, turned down a knighthood) is by no means full of praise for Mr Major or his government, though it is less disapproving than its Sunday companion. The Times is no greater consolation. Last week one of its main leaders convincingly controverted Mr Major's claim, made on the Jimmy Young Programme, that he possessed the constitutional right to remain Prime Minister until such time as he chose to call the next election.

This (though the Times did not mention it) was similar to the claim Lady Thatcher made in Moscow in 1990, shortly after her own deposition. She said she had won three elections and had never been unseated by the people. Mr Major said he had won an election and would not be unseated except by the people.

But an election for leader can be held every year, irrespective of whether the party is in power. Mr Kenneth Clarke, during his interview with Lady Thatcher on that terrible Wednesday, tried to console her with his view that the system was ludicrous. But it still exists. There were suggestions that it might be changed. Yet it was not. The only substantial modification made after the Great Fall was that 10 per cent of the parliamentary party (now fallen from 34 to 33) should write separately to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding an election.

What is clear is that Mr Major is not going to budge until all the party's electoral processes have been exhausted. Sod off, suits] - that will be his message. Even in the unlikely event of the Cabinet's uniting behind Mr Michael Heseltine, Mr Major would not simply depart, leaving Mr Heseltine to fight it out with Mr Clarke together with one or two other hopeful characters. If Mr Major had been in Lady Thatcher's position in 1990 - having won on the first ballot, but not by the requisite margin - he would have stood again in the second ballot.

This raises the dreadful possibility that, unless the Cabinet broke ranks, as it did not formally do in 1990 (for Lady Thatcher had retired from the contest before Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd entered it), the stalking-horse might win. Mr Heseltine might have won in 1990 in a straight fight against Lady Thatcher on the second ballot. The most obvious stalking- horse is Mr Norman Lamont. We might end up with him as Prime Minister. What a terrible thought]

Mr Lamont was one of the victims of the press. He remains bitter, though his bile is directed less at the papers than at the Prime Minister and party officials who gave in to them. Mr David Mellor is of a sunnier disposition while Mr Tim Yeo and Mr Michael Mates take life as it comes.

All are illustrations of the power of the press to force resignations. My heart went out to Mr William Waldegrave when the news came through that he enjoyed the Prime Minister's full support. But he was thought due for dismissal anyway at the reshuffle. Mr Waldegrave is something of a sitting target. The real test of the Tory tabloids' marksmanship remains Mr Major.