Conservative Diary

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The Conservative Party's Daily Mail problem

Four daily newspapers matter most to Downing Street.

The Sun because it remains Britain's best-selling newspaper and is the Murdoch empire's flagship.

The Telegraph because it is still the newspaper read by the most committed Conservative supporters.

The Guardian because it is the newspaper read by the BBC and the ideas class.

And then the Daily Mail because it still roars for middle England.

DAILY-MAILThe Mail/Cameron relationship has never been a particularly happy one but there is concern in Downing Street that it has soured considerably since the formation of the Coalition.

Screen shot 2010-06-20 at 16.08.57 David Cameron was furious at the newspaper's recent 'Stand up for your country' front page when the Mail questioned Mr Cameron for not doing more to protect BP from Obama's anger. I'm told he raged for fifteen minutes with staff. Since then the Daily Mail has used another front page splash to attack the Coalition on prisons and last Friday it registered unhappiness at Cameron's "mistaken" decision to share family policy with Nick Clegg. Today it is in full attack mode, against Chris Huhne's adulterous "hypocrisy".

There are five main explanations for the problem.

First, the Brown-Dacre relationship. Although this is now a fast diminishing factor there was a real connection between Gordon Brown and the Mail's Editor, Paul Dacre - particularly while Blair was still Prime Minister. Dacre has always hated the 'celebrification' of politics and never took to Blair as a result. Dacre never received the knighthood awarded to his predecessor David English - let alone a peerage for the favours he did for Brown.

Second, and most importantly, ideology. The Mail is not without pragmatism or contradiction. Although deeply Eurosceptic it backed Ken Clarke to lead the Tory party, for example. What the newspaper doesn't like is focus-grouped and fake politics. It has always felt Cameron was too calculating and hammered David Cameron when he decided against a referendum on Lisbon last November. A leader accused Mr Cameron of behaving as "cynically as New Labour". Dacre feels that the Tory leader has been unwilling to lead public opinion and, worse, got behind the public mood on tax and immigration, in particular. 

Third, Andy Coulson. Coulson, the former News of the World Editor and now head of communications for the Coalition, has a very good relationship with Dacre's powerful deputy (and likely successor), Jon Steafel but his relationship with Dacre is trickier.  Dacre - very much an 'Alderman Roberts' kind of Tory - thinks Coulson remains too close to the Murdoch empire. He also blames the Tories' Director of Communications for the way Cameron has got close to celebrities like Matthew Freud. In the preparation of this blog Mail journalists were eager to tell me that journalists from the New York Times were in London investigating the Tories' links to Murdoch. The NYT is in a life-and-death battle for circulation with the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal.

Fourth, special favours for the Murdoch Empire. The Mail will never enjoy a relationship with a governing party like The Sun. It's a different kind of newspaper. While Murdoch likes The Sun to be close to the governing party the Mail has always been detached. Nonetheless there is resentment at the Mail - and The Telegraph - at special favours given to The Sun. One senior staffer at The Telegraph described the photo of David Cameron holding The Sun, a day or two after entering 10 Downing Street, as "cheapening the office of Prime Minister". The staffer continued: "It's ok if Downing Street rarely calls the Barclay Brothers but why does Rupert get into Downing St days after the formation of the Coalition?" Senior Mail executives are convinced that Andy Coulson agreed to the TV election debates as a favour to BSkyB, who had campaigned for them.

Fifth, a general lack of love from the Tory high command. This is a general problem with CCHQ's press management. The media feel starved of material. If they aren't supplied with good material - including internal wiring stories - they still have to fill their pages. Journalists who went on the PM's recent trip to Afghanistan (newspaper journalists were only included after a rebellion by The Sun's Political Editor, Tom Newton-Dunn) only got seven minutes with Cameron. That is only storing up trouble for the future. One senior Tory-leaning commentator told ConservativeHome: "I want to support them but they never ring. I don't feel part of what they are doing. It's all so aloof."

DailySales The table on the right confirms the reach of the Mail. With a daily circulation of over two million it is Britain's second best-selling newspaper. Its readership is much higher still. Including its online readership it is estimated that it reaches more than ten million Britons every week. Tory HQ have made efforts to improve the relationship. Although the Camerons are close to the Mail's Chairman and main shareholder, Lord Rothermere, before the election the Tory leader and Mrs Cameron dined with the Dacres. Mr Dacre was charmed by Samantha and that's not the first time I've heard that said. Mrs Cameron does seem to be the Prime Minister's secret weapon in intimate settings.

The relationship will never be perfect but a key test will be the appointment of a successor to Peter Oborne, currently the newspaper's leading political columnist (who The Telegraph has recruited). Downing Street will be watching the appointment with interest. It will tell them if Dacre is stepping up or reducing the confrontationalism.

Tim Montgomerie


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