Each day, a newspaper needs a leader column, giving its institutional view on the news. Sometimes the topic will be obvious, forced onto the writer by its overwhelming importance. On quieter days, a leader writer will be left to cast about for some unique or amusing angle. Either way, most leaders are reactive - an insight into the paper’s worldview sparked by the day’s news, but not more than that.
Most, but not all. Sometimes the editor and the leader writer will take the opportunity to make a broader statement – the declaration of a campaign, the endorsement or condemnation of a particular political party and so on. So it is with today’s Times, which roundly condemns May’s government, declaring the new Prime Minister to be “adrift”.
The immediate cause of this verdict is Hinkley Point, a project which the paper feels to be unreliable, excessively expensive and potentially insecure. But while an ordinary leader might have left it at that, The Times joins the dots to other concerns – over grammar schools, the Orgreave inquiry, the watered-down obesity strategy, prison reform and the airport expansion decision – to draw a damning verdict. Altogether, the paper feels worried:
‘Political honeymoons are earned through party or national election victories. So far Mrs May has won neither, unlike her predecessor. She seems intent even so on jettisoning some of his better policies while sticking to his worst…A fondness for decision-making that ignores the evidence instead of paying close attention to it is only making matters worse.’
The political position of Fleet Street isn’t the most important thing in our politics, but it can matter – voters are more likely to take their lead from the television, but it is often the papers which inform the agenda that broadcasters pursue.
The Times occupies an interesting position as a particular sort of media swing voter. It is often viewed as somewhat to the right of Tory centre, but its position is sufficiently complex that it cannot be listed as one of the core Conservative newspapers. It has a certain Toryism about it, but it also features a constant element of the well-off centre left (behold some columnists’ continued fury about the EU referendum result). It championed Thatcherism, went on to endorse Blair, and returned to the Tory fold under Cameron. Now it seems to find Mayism too reactionary for its tastes.
The interesting question is whether this is a feature or a bug of Downing Street’s new approach. Will the Prime Minister and her advisers be concerned to draw criticism so soon from a prominent newspaper which informs the thinking of so many in the chattering and policy-making classes? Or will they reason that, with Corbyn leading Labour, there is nowhere else for Times readers to go – while the Daily Express readers who have decamped to UKIP might now be up for grabs?
It is striking that the Prime Minister justified her grammar schools policy as being in the interests of “working class people” – as The Sun noted at the time, that sounds superficially like Cameron’s “hard-working people” but on closer examination refers to a crucially different group. The Times is many great things, but it has never purported to be the outlet through which to reach the working class. Its leader column today will be read in Downing Street – but the reader might not find it all that troubling.