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Does the Mail have more trouble in store for Sunak’s government?

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street, London, to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

With a general election fast approaching and the Labour Party committed to abolishing the non-dom tax status that he enjoys, Lord Rothermere is said to be anxious about the problems his own newspapers are stoking up for Rishi Sunak’s teetering government.

“Our present editor, Ted Verity, seems to have forgotten that the reason Jonathan [Rothermere] intervened to remove his predecessor, Geordie Greig, was that he was perceived to have been unsupportive to the prime minister of the day, who then happened to be Boris Johnson,” whispers my man in the newsroom. “A lot of the sniping Sunak has had to contend with from the Mail and Mail on Sunday since he became PM makes that against Johnson look tame by comparison. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Daily Mirror.”

Sunak had been the favourite to succeed Johnson the first time he campaigned for the job, but lost to Liz Truss after the Mail titles backed her. Disparaging headlines since he replaced Truss – “Bleak poll reveals public think Sunak is failing to make progress on his five key pledges,” “Sunak backtracks on promise to ‘stop the boats’ by the next general election” etc – have become par for the course.

What appears to have brought things to a head for Rothermere has been his papers’ portrayal of Johnson as a martyr for quitting after the Tory-dominated privileges committee found he had lied to parliament, and, worse, the way they have been virtually inciting the disgraced former PM to attempt a comeback.

Old Mail hands look back wistfully to the years Sir David English presided over strategy at the company. A visionary, he was responsible for the Daily Mail’s radical redesign – still largely intact – in the 1970s; launched the Mail on Sunday; and ensured the company bought into Teletext at the bargain price of £8.2m just as it was about to become the biggest electronic publishing venture of its kind in the world. He also adeptly navigated both his papers – and the Tory Party – around various crises.

Rhetorically, my informant asks: “And where are we now under Paul Dacre’s genius stewardship? His riposte in 1999 to people who said the internet was the future of newspapers – ‘bullshit dot com’ – doesn’t look so smart, and Martin Clarke, who set up MailOnline for us, has lately left our employ. We are meanwhile still awaiting a judge’s decision about whether Elton John, Prince Harry, Doreen Lawrence and others have a case against us for phone hacking. As for where the duff tips we’ve given the Tory Party have got them now, I’m sure you don’t need to ask.”

Mandrake hesitates to add to Rishi Sunak’s woes, but it would be nice if at some point he got around to explaining who Akhil Triapathi is and how he knows him.

Both his office and Conservative HQ are declining to comment on a £38,500 air travel gift that Sunak disclosed in the register of members’ interests that Triapathi gave him. The Tory press office led me a merry dance, first referring me to the Cabinet Office, then on reflection to Sunak’s constituency office. None have been willing to say a word on the matter.

The mystery donor supplied air travel for Sunak and eight members of staff “to multiple Conservative Party events” in April.

Conor Burns told the local newspaper in his Bournemouth constituency that he didn’t go into public life for “honours and recognition”. Certainly, after his suspension from the Commons for seven days for attempting to use his position to “intimidate” a man involved in a business dispute with his father, he’d have seemed, to say the least, an unlikely recipient.

His toadying to Johnson – it was Burns who had infamously defended one instance of the former prime minister’s lockdown partying by saying he had been “ambushed by a cake” – must obviously have endeared him to his one-time boss.

There is also of course the moment Burns reportedly walked in on Johnson and his then girlfriend Carrie Symonds at the foreign office and found them in an allegedly “compromising situation”.

Whether this is what got him on to Johnson’s dishonours list one can only speculate, but soon it will be a case of “arise, Sir Conor” when he receives his tarnished knighthood.

Daily and Sunday Telegraph journalists – along with their colleagues at the Spectator – who wholeheartedly embraced the Barclay family’s mad Brexit ideology are wondering what the future holds now that Lloyds Banking Group has seized control of the media empire and is seeking to sell it off as soon as possible.

Their best hope, of course is that a buyer who is every bit as right wing and committed to Brexit comes forward, but there is at least an awareness at Lloyds that while they have a fiduciary interest to secure a realistic price for the titles, they also have to keep in mind the national interest. The titles are reckoned to be worth between £500m and £600m, some way short of the £665m the Barclays paid for them in 2004.

In 2018, I disclosed how Evgeny Lebedev had been involved in what turned out to be abortive talks with the Barclays about acquiring the titles with the Saudi Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, who had, in the preceding year, acquired a large stake in the Independent.

I am reliably informed that Lebedev and Abuljadayel are not interested now. Mail owner Lord Rothermere – the other obvious favourite who could find synergies between the titles – has shown “mild interest,” but has enough on his plate running his company more or less single-handedly since he took it private.

The Barclays lost control of the titles after a long-running dispute with a Lloyds subsidiary over debts allegedly approaching £1bn, which had been secured against a Bermuda-based entity in the family’s empire that owned the titles.

One man at Lloyds who must have felt a degree of schadenfreude at the news his company had seized control of the titles was Ben Brogan, Lloyds’ group public affairs director. In more rational times, he was the Daily Telegraph’s deputy editor and its chief political commentator. Should Lloyds be stuck with the title for some time and need a competent editor to re-establish it in its traditional role – the tolerant voice of One Nation Conservativism – they could do worse than ask their man Brogan to take charge in the interim.

The late Sir David Barclay must, incidentally, be turning in his grave. He always told me he wouldn’t countenance an offer for his beloved newspapers one penny short of a billion, and he reckoned the family had bought them off the old jailbird Lord Conrad Black for “a song”.

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