David Cameron is in some difficulty. The Tories are worried about their shrinking opinion poll lead. Maybe a hung Parliament beckons. Maybe even worse. Who can say?
If the Conservative Party ever needed an extra push from its friends in the right-wing Press, now is the moment. And yet only The Sun offers enthusiastic support, sometimes verging on the desperate. The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – which, unlike The Sun, never endorsed New Labour – remain lukewarm about "David Cameron's Tories".
I wonder whether the Conservatives have ever gone into an election with so little backing from their traditional friends. It is true that in 1973, towards the end of Ted Heath's disastrous prime ministership, characterised by three-day weeks and electricity cuts, the Telegraph and Mail showed signs of impatience and disloyalty. Equally, the Mail was pretty fed up with John Major by the end of his stint. But, whatever their misgivings, both papers normally rouse themselves for the old cause as an election looms. Not now.
Only The Sun is fully on board. It is as biased and one-sided rooting for the Tories as it was when signed up to New Labour. Last Thursday the paper trumpeted the Conservatives' nine-point lead in a poll ("Cam attack helps Tory fightback") though this hardly represented a significant improvement, and if repeated at a general election would almost certainly result in a hung Parliament.
Since The Sun switched its support to the Tories last October they have actually lost ground. I doubt the paper can be blamed for this, though it may have had the effect of galvanising the left-wing media against Cameron. (The Guardian is increasingly turning its guns on the Tory leader, with whom it once flirted. Last Friday two out of three of its front page stories were anti-Tory.) But although The Sun boasts more readers than the Mail and Telegraph combined, it does not hold so much sway over the crucial middle-class vote.
To compare the differing response of these papers, look at the way they covered Mr Cameron's announcement last week that under a Conservative government public-sector workers would be able to sack their managers and make strategic decisions. The Sun welcomed the plan as though Mr Cameron was fresh down from Mount Sinai, carrying a letter from him, as well as a long first leader headlined "Tory Revolution". It also found space for a piece about "PM's porkies" following Gordon Brown's revelation to Piers Morgan in that lachrymose interview that a Middle Eastern government had given him a roasted pig, which the paper thought unlikely given Muslims' and Jews' rules about pork.
By contrast, the Mail's news coverage was more muted and its editorial, though not unfriendly, conceded that Mr Cameron's "scheme raises more questions than it answers". The paper also carried a separate item about the Tories' carelessly incorrect assertion that 54 per cent of teenage girls – in fact it is 5.4 per cent – in deprived areas become pregnant before their 18th birthday. As for the Telegraph, it ran a straightforward news story about Mr Cameron's scheme, but its long first leader avoided the subject, and instead chided both main parties for their "playground antics" in the debate over care for the elderly.
We shouldn't exaggerate the Mail's and the Telegraph's antipathy for "David Cameron's Tories". Come the election, I am sure both papers will be at least gently supportive. The problem for the Tory leader is their lack of enthusiasm while he is flagging in the polls and the left-wing media (including, I suggest, some in the BBC) are sharpening their knives and remembering what they did in the last campaign. When the Tories were surging ahead some months ago, he did not need them. Now he does.
Is there anything he can do? Probably not much. Both papers believe they are reflecting the anxieties and reservations of their readers. His critics in the right-wing Press (from which, for these purposes, I have excluded The Times) are worried about Mr Cameron's relative youth, his inexperience and perceived aspects of his character. (I should mention here that I have written one or two pieces for the Mail about the Tory leader which he may not have pasted on his bedroom wall.) They do not buy the whole modernising ticket and see worrying holes in Conservative policy.
Mr Cameron can hardly change himself, and so near to an election he is surely unlikely to alter his policies very much, so I doubt he will appease his Tory critics at this stage of the game. They are more likely to rally to him if there is a double-dip recession, a Prime Minister left gibbering by the Chilcot inquiry, and more stories of hideous behaviour in the bunker of Number 10.
Why the Jan Moir judgment is a matter of opinion
Many people are up in arms against the Press Complaints Commission after it declined to censure Jan Moir for a column she wrote in the Daily Mail about the death last October of Stephen Gately, the Boyzone singer. Gately's partner Andrew Cowles had made an official complaint to the PCC, which also received a record 25,000 complaints from people who thought Jan Moir's article homophobic.
One common criticism of the decision, to judge by hundreds of postings on Media Guardian, is that it was a stitch-up. Some assert that Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, oversaw the judgment. Mr Dacre does not sit on the Commission. He is chairman of the editors' code of practice committee, a body that maintains the code laid down by the PCC. The 17 members of the Commission who adjudicated on the Moir article do include Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday, but he took no part in this case.
Some still maintain the judgment was a stitch-up because there are seven editors on the PCC. But is it not possible that its members interpreted the code of practice in an honest and disinterested way? The issue is not whether or not Ms Moir's article was offensive but whether it breached the code. The PCC believes it didn't. It certainly did not come close to breaking the law, and it is odd how many people automatically assume it must have broken the code.
The PCC, though "uncomfortable" with parts of the article, justly said that "argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily." This sounds like the voice of true liberalism. If we hold precious the right to express our opinion, that right will not be upheld by rushing to shut up opinions we don't like.
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