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Cameron’s Problem with the Right-Wing Press

Last Updated: Friday, April 8th, 2011

Pakistan is a dangerous place for western politicians to visit. The Prime Minister arrived there earlier this week with a bullet-proof ambulance and an entire medical ward on standby. But he could have been forgiven for wondering, as he came back on Wednesday morning, if he was safer there than here – in one sense, anyway. The media in the sub-continent apparently gave him a hard time. But not nearly as tough a one as he got from four right-wing British papers on his return.

The Daily Telegraph slammed his claim in Pakistan that Britain was responsible for many world problems. The Sun excoriated him for giving £650 million to the country Pakistan, and was joined in doing so by the Daily Express. The Daily Mail blasted Nick Clegg’s alleged hypocrisy over interns. “The quad” – as these papers are nicknamed in Downing Street, with ironic reference to the Government’s own key “gang of four” – were, as Tim Montgomerie noted that morning, piling into Cameron again at the slightest provocation.

The brittle relations between Number 10 and “the quad” are a growing problem for the Government, and can’t help but make me reflect on the changes that have taken place in the relationship between the Conservative Party and Fleet Street since I started out as a working journalist some 20 years ago – and where it’s all going. I’d divide what’s happened into three phases.

The first started ending roughly when I started out, in 1990 – the year that Margaret Thatcher was ousted. The Maastricht Treaty hadn’t been agreed. There was no devolution settlement, no human rights act. Above all, “sleaze” hadn’t arrived to lower public confidence in politics. Class identity, though weakening very fast, was stronger. The Murdoch stable, and the Telegraph/Mail/Express trio, saw the Conservatives as the party of patriotism and business. Thatcher was an incarnation of their idea of what a right of centre politician should be – however critical they were of her Governments. One might say of this period that these papers largely supported the Conservatives.

The second began to take shape after “Black Wednesday”, and continued until the advent of David Cameron. Britain’s humiliating exit from the ERM, the frenzy of the “sleaze” scandals under John Major, the rise of Tony Blair, and the collapse of the Conservatives in 1997 transformed the emotional register of the right-wing press from respect to contempt. The Murdoch stable deserted to New Labour. The Telegraph, Mail and Express never did so – they were too dyed-blue-in-the-wool for that – but, increasingly, they came to see themselves as the real guardian of the conservative interest, lecturing the Conservatives, in tones often as dismissive as they were strident, about what to do. One could say of this period that these papers believed that they were the Conservatives.

The third period became especially marked after the expenses scandal, and continues. Much of the right-wing press didn’t want Cameron as Conservative leader. A centrist-leaning “heir to Blair”, a self-proclaimed “liberal conservative” isn’t their ideal. Cameron’s response, broadly, was to ignore their strategic advice, make for the “centre ground” and – as Labour’s popularity declined and his prospects waxed – gently remind their Editors that they’d nowhere else to go. All this might have worked smoothly in 1990. But class loyalty has withered, the EU’s powers have grown, newspaper sales have slumped and “expenses” dealt a blow to Westminster even more wounding than “sleaze”. It’s not too much to see the right-wing press as now narrowly defending their readers’ interests, and as emotionally divorced from the Conservatives.

It could be argued in response that “the quad” will still support the Tories when the chips are down; that Fleet Street matters far less than it did, given the rise of the net and social media, and the Conservatives are better off concentrating on the broadcast media, as the appointment of Craig Oliver indicates.

There are three reasons to question this thesis.

First, supporting a party when the chips are down doesn’t matter much, because it’s too late. What shapes readers’ views isn’t a reluctant editorial on election day presenting Cameron as the lesser of two evils, but the whole of paper’s coverage over the preceding years – what they put on the front page, how they present the news, which stories they follow up, what opinion pieces they commission and how the project them.

Second, not all of the quad may stick with the Tories. Yes, the Telegraph/Mail/Express trinity are likely to back the Tories. But the Murdoch stable, and particularly the Sun, can’t be relied on. After all, the latter’s crossed to Labour before. It dislikes the Government’s policies on defence and prisons especially. And Rupert Murdoch doesn’t like losers. Furthermore, Andy Coulson, the ex-Murdoch tabloid editor who helped keep the Sun onside as the Government’s Communications Director, has gone.

Third, Fleet Street remains a big power and influences the broadcasters. The Telegraph, Mail and Express may not be the powers they were, but they remain serious players, helping to shape the views of voters that the Conservatives have or seek. It’s true that the BBC doesn’t tend to follow the news leads of the right-wing press. But it’s not slow to pick up and amplify their discontents. The expenses scandal is a reminder that paper’s still best for some stories – for presenting them in an easy-to-scour single format that demands nothing more technically complex than turning a page. Late-night TV presentation of front pages, and early morning sofa TV reviews, are a reminder of the how print and broadcasting feed off each other.

Cameron’s way of dealing with the right-wing press is rather like his way of dealing with the right of his party. When the pressure mounts, he will make concessions – as he sought to do on human rights in the wake of the votes for prisoners’ row by setting up a commission, and in the aftermath of last autumn’s party conference child benefit saga by promising tax support for marriage again.

And as he started, so he’s likely to go on – especially in the light of one of the biggest considerations of all, namely the fact of coalition (his ease with which is yet another irritant to the quad, and the existence of which dilutes his authority). I can’t help closing with a question. If this is how Cameron’s treated when he’s relatively popular, as the Government still is, how will it be for him in a year’s time – assuming the Government survives the AV referendum and is pressing on towards the next election?

Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

John Baron MP: Conservative MPs should have been balloted on the Coalition deal
“[David Cameron] needed the Party’s consent to offer the Liberal Democrats a referendum on AV in order to put into place a coalition government – the implication being that if we didn’t, then Gordon Brown would.  A number of us at the time thought this was a concession too far, and subsequently voted against the idea when it came before the House of Commons. I believe the Parliamentary Party should have had a ballot on this fundamentally important issue. This could have been organised at very short notice, as were subsequent ballots on less important issues.” – Read more: http://is.gd/eteiT6

Nick de Bois MP: NHS reform – let’s press on and do the right thing
“When it comes to the NHS, there is certainly consensus on one thing: leaving the NHS as it is just isn’t an option. Doing nothing will let down front line doctors and nurses and patients alike. It also does a disservice to taxpayers. A system over 50 years old needs to be updated for modern times and modern health problems. That is why Ministers should press ahead with their proposed reforms, and win the battle against those who are calling for them to be watered down.” –  Read more: http://is.gd/g5GQv5

Paul Goodman: Downing Street mustn’t present the Liberal Democrats as the caring face of the Coalition
“If AV is rejected in the coming referendum, Number 10 will be tempted to make more concessions to the junior coalition partner in order to prop up Nick Clegg.  As Damian Green’s indicated, the Party mustn’t get into a position whereby, come the next election, the Liberal Democrats gain electoral reward for serving as the Coalition’s heart while the Conservatives provided the head.  If retreat from Lansley’s bill is the order of the day, let it be presented as the decision of the whole Government, rather than as a response to the lobbying of part of it.  This claim also has the merit of being true: – Read more: http://is.gd/ZwWa33

Christian Guy: Don’t write off Ken Clarke just yet – the rehabilitation revolution remains his greatest challenge and opportunity.

“Contained within the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ are some fresh and innovative ideas to redress this waste.  Many of these build on the Centre for Social Justice’s report Locked Up Potential, led by Jonathan Aitken.  As part of this ‘revolution’ prisons will finally become places of purposeful and realistic work – prisoners should go to bed tired at the end of each day like the hard working taxpayer does.  And the wages they earn should help to compensate victims…This is no panacea but nor is it a soft option.  These are hard-hitting proposals which strike at the heart of recent failure on crime.” – Read more: http://is.gd/91H2PE
 Tim Montgomerie: Cameron should express frustration at Coalition compromises on crime, Europe, defence and the family
“Last night I wrote about Lord Ashcroft’s poll on public attitudes to law and order. It revealed a massive gap between the three main political parties and the public on attitudes to crime and punishment. Do check it out…We often hear calls from Lib Dem activists who want Clegg and Co to make it clearer when they disagree with their Conservative coalition partners. It would also be useful for David Cameron to express some disappointment at the compromises he is having to make…Conservatives need to see signs from Cameron that things would be different if we win a majority of our own, next time.” – Read more: http://is.gd/HOZ4Hf

Michael Burnett: How Labour mismanaged Public Private Partnerships – and how we should reform them
“So what should we do now we have the opportunity to reform PPP?  Firstly, keep demolishing the Gordon Brown myth that PPP has delivered value for money based on savings achieved in the procurement phase… Secondly, use PPP only when it is clearly value for money in the procurement phase i.e. if the PPP option is a given percentage better than the alternatives…Thirdly, improve PPP governance i.e. make sure that value for money in the PPP procurement phase is realised during the contract execution phase…Finally, use the government’s market clout to change the PPP model to give better value for money for the public sector.” – Read more: http://is.gd/WtK0Wb

Jonathan Isaby: The future now hangs in the balance for those on the Candidates’ List
“So how many of the List are seeking to remain on it?  My information is that around 700 people are going through the process, meaning that only about 150 or so have opted to resign from the Candidates’ List altogether.  As to how many of the 700 will be culled from the List, my sources have insisted to me that it is absolutely untrue that the party has a target number in mind; rather, they are judging individuals on their contribution during the general election, either as a candidate or as a campaigner in other seats.” Read more: http://is.gd/FddJvb

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