When the Prime Minister’s EU deal was confirmed, it received a monstering for being a pale imitation of the already limited demands with which he had begun the process. Much of the criticism didn’t come from anti-EU MPs, the two Leave campaigns (which were at the time still vying for designation) or even from UKIP – instead, the source of Downing Street’s trouble was Fleet Street. So painful was the experience that the Government and the pro-EU campaign have barely mentioned the renegotiation since, preferring to talk more vaguely of a “reformed EU” (even though what is on offer is no such thing).
Now that purdah is in place, limiting the capacity of the Government to use the civil service and other public resources to issue press releases in favour of the EU, the natural Euroscepticism of the centre-right press is reasserting itself. Of the ‘big four’ newspapers on the right, one – the Daily Express – is a long-standing supporter of Leave. Another – the Daily Mail – declared for Brexit in December.
Which way might the other two – The Sun and the Daily Telegraph – fall? The former has flirted repeatedly with Leave, but is yet to take the plunge – and is generally assumed to be waiting on a decision from on high. The latter is a major unknown. On the one hand, the Telegraph has a long history of Euroscepticism, its readership is synonymous with a Eurosceptic strand of Toryish politics and it plays host to Boris Johnson’s column. On the other hand, it has always borne some suspicion of the more over-enthusiastic Brexiteers, and its proprietors are rumoured to be opposed to a Leave vote.
One issue which could seal the deal for both is immigration. Notably, The Sun and the Telegraph have joined the Express and the Mail in recent days in focusing heavily on the resumption of the EU’s migration crisis, the Government’s continued failure to fulfil its “tens of thousands” pledge and the new trend of boats smuggling illegal migrants across the English Channel.
Today’s ‘Sun Says’ editorial declares that voters “simply want the politicians they elect to be able to control immigration numbers. It’s not rocket science.” Meanwhile, the Telegraph has gone further, committing itself to a full-blown campaign on border security. This tack leads the paper to act as a regular outlet for Vote Leave messages which chime with its declared aim – today splashing with Michael Gove’s essay about the way the EU puts Britain at risk.
The deeper both papers get into the issue, the closer they come to making a clear Leave argument, and the harder it becomes for them to later backpedal. It would still be just about possible for the Telegraph to end up declaring for Remain, but it’s increasingly hard to imagine the rhetorical contortions required to do so while still claiming to stand up for secure borders.