Newspaper endorsements are not as valuable as they once were but the editorial endorsements of a newspaper are still actively sought by politicians – not least because they tend to influence the overall news priorities of that newspaper.
Over the last 24 hours I've been speaking to journalists within all of Britain's main daily newspapers (and The Economist) – at least two on each – and speculating about their likely endorsements at the next election.
What we are likely to witness is Fleet Street making a mass defection from Labour to the Conservatives.
Only The Mirror is sure to endorse Labour.
Fleet Street's four swing voters – the FT, Economist, Times and London Evening Standard – are likely to endorse the Conservatives although no final decisions have been taken.
Commercial and ideological reasons mean that The Guardian and Independent will stop a long way short of endorsing the Conservatives but are likely to continue to give David Cameron a fairer hearing than they have given any previous Tory leader.
More details below the graphic.
The survey of likely endorsements will be hugely encouraging to the Tory machine. Andy Coulson has coordinated targeted wooing of all of Britain's newspaper editors and proprietors. David Cameron's office was in touch with the new owner of the London Evening Standard within hours of him assuming control of the title. CCHQ are encouraged by the thinking across Fleet Street but assume that they will still have to work hard to ensure that each individual deal is sealed. Most newspaper editors won't make a final decision until much, much closer to polling day.
Rupert Murdoch himself will decide which way The Sun and the News of the World go. The Sun's backing of Boris Johnson last year, however, and the fierce opposition to Labour of influential columnists like Trevor Kavanagh points towards blue smoke from The Sun's leader column. One of the chief obstacles to winning back The Sun was removed when David Cameron replaced Dominic Grieve as Shadow Home Secretary. The Sun was very unhappy with Mr Grieve and rewarded the Tories for switching to Chris Grayling by giving him a prime slot in the newspaper just days after his appointment.
The Times is likely to back the Conservatives. Sources at the The Times say the newspaper was never a Labour paper but was won over by Blair-ism. Editor James Harding – who will make the decision in consultation with colleagues – will be looking for a Blairite combination of Atlanticism, belief in free enterprise and commitment to social justice from the Conservatives. In recent times its newly prominent page two leaders have stood with the Conservatives against the fiscal stimulus and have sounded increasingly worried about the Brown government's retreat from public service reform.
The FT and Economist will probe deeply before choosing. Winning over these two titles would be a big gain. The FT has backed Labour at the last FOUR elections and The Economist backed Labour in 2001 and 2005. One FT source said "the newspaper was there for the taking" as long as the Tory leadership could prove that it would not be isolated in Europe and would avoid "distracting" renegotiations of EU Treaties. The Economist is also heading towards the Conservatives but promises not to repeat what it now sees as its mistake of 1996/97 when it expended too much ink chronicling the decline of the Major government and not enough time probing the Blair team's readiness for office.
The Guardian and Independent are set to give Tories kindest hearing in a generation. One source at The Independent and another at The Guardian used almost exactly the same expression to me yesterday. They said that it would be commercial "suicide" for either of their titles to endorse the Conservatives – predicting that such a decision would produce a mass of defections. Both newspapers are, however, likely to give the Conservatives a very fair hearing in news coverage and editorial space. The Independent's new editor Roger Alton did exactly that while he oversaw The Observer. I was told that the newspaper was very, very unlikely to back Labour. At the last election it urged voters to support liberal candidates. That might evolve into a firmer endorsement of the Liberal Democrats this time or of a hung parliament with Nick Clegg ensuring the Conservatives remain "Cameroonian". The Guardian is said to be very divided about its endorsement. A Compass-ite grouping would like to press the Labour leadership from the left. A very small group would like the party to endorse the Liberal Democrats. The expectation is that The Guardian will eventually endorse Labour but without enthusiasm.
Even The Mirror is not enthusiastic about Brown: I hesitated to ring The Mirror, thinking that the response would be wholly predictable but I was right to put in the two calls I made. Yes, The Mirror will endorse Labour but one of my sources was keen to point out that the paper had given David Miliband a lot of attention when he made his leadership intervention last year. My other source said that The Mirror had not been campaigning aggressively for Labour as it had in the past. Remember, I was told, we are a Labour paper, not a Labour Party paper. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph: Both of these newspapers (The Telegraph certainly and The Daily Mail, almost certainly) will back the Conservatives but both will continue to use the next year to press the Conservatives to be tougher on the size of the state. The Mail is also hoping for more robustness from the Tory leadership on immigration and the family. The personal relationship between Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre remains warm, I am told, but the last six months have seen the newspaper turn the screw again on Labour. That will continue.
Within the survey I found two cautionary notes for the Conservatives:
- Expect a wave of pre-election examination: As noted re The Economist, Fleet Street did not do its job in subjecting New Labour to proper scrutiny. A number of Fleet Street titles, notably The Times, plan to devote a lot of time over the next year to examining the Tories' readiness to govern.
- Cut the political explanations: As Tories respond to the coming scrutiny they need to be less political. It's a worry I have from my own contacts with CCHQ and frontbenchers but the usual response to a substantial question is a political answer. We can't do x or are doing y because of that electoral constituency or this opinion poll finding etc. One title told me about a very frustrating lunch with one senior Tory when the journalists kept asking about Tory economic plans. The answers from the senior Tory were all rooted in what each course of action meant for the party's political fortunes rather than what was necessary for the country. Senior frontbenchers need to adopt an iron rule to only give substantial answers to substantial questions. It's all part of adopting the mindset of a government-in-waiting.