Jumping off the fence at Fortress Wapping
The Sun’s twelve year love affair with Labour started and ended with mobile phone calls to Peter Mandelson. I vividly remember the first call, I was standing next to him at the time. We were in the lobby of the Atrium, a grim restaurant in Westminster, when a News International big cheese rang to say that the following day’s paper was backing Blair.
It was an important moment, no doubt about that. And the result of much hard work by the Blair team (trips to the other side of the world to give speeches, endless lunches, lots of stroking and soothing).
Given Labour’s lead in the polls at the time it was no surprise, there are not many election campaigns where a Murdoch paper has backed a losing candidate and at the time Labour had a convincing lead in the polls. Taking Mori* data Labour had not slipped below 48% points from the moment that Blair became leader and had peaked at 61%. Cameron today is in nothing like as strong a position, his ratings have touched 52% but have also gone a low as 28%. Crucially, Labour has shown it can eat into the Tories lead, as it did this week, during the peak financial crisis last year and during Brown’s early months in office.
Of course the Tories are still favourites to win the election. But the result is nothing like as certain as it was when The Sun backed Blair. I suspect that the decision to fall in behind Cameron has more to do with: the Sun’s declining circulation (they love a drop of good PR in East London); the fact that News International’s new chief executive wants to flex her political muscles; and pressure from the Tories who want to bring the paper’s still considerable campaigning weight behind their efforts as we enter the home straight of the electoral cycle.
It’s very unlikely that The Sun would have made this decision, especially so early, without the approval of Andy Coulson, Cameron’s director of communications. Which only confirms a point which I have made many times over the past year. The Tories are inexperienced and naive. Sure the endorsement took some of the shine off Brown’s speech, but it has only galvanized and united Labour support (I rarely agree with Tony Woodley!) , brought the traditional Labour siding media back into the fold and will encourage others to seriously scrutinise the Tories as an alternative government (which is the last thing any opposition wants…) It was a card that can only be played once.
The paper’s endorsement may become something of an albatross around the Tory party’s neck. Labour has shown it is not going down without a fight. The polls are going to tighten as the media highlight the Tories (pretty flimsy) policy offering. And, don’t forgot, the electoral system is weighted significantly in Labour’s favour (has someone explained that to Trevor Kavanagh?) When the going gets tough for the Tories their pals are Fortress Wapping will get a little sweaty, they will want a place around the Tories campaigning table, their proposals might not be quite the right ones…. The Tories may have to choose between their own instincts and The Sun’s. Rupert Murdoch does not want to back a loser, or someone who throws away a big lead, which makes his decision to jump off the political fence right now all the more curious.
* I know that Mori is far from perfect, especially pre 1997, but I wanted to compare like with like as much as I could.