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Election presswatch: The Mail is not wavering but frowning at Sunak

What the right wing papers think about Raynergate, the triple lock plus and private schools

Rishi Sunak speaks to journalists on the plane on their way to Staffordshire (Photo by Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Daily Mail never likes to underestimate its importance to national life. On Saturday it projected itself as the “REAL election battleground”.

This was by way of explanation of the unusual decision to make its main story a Labour politician talking about what a Labour government would like to do. “Reeves: I’ll never play fast and loose with your money” was an exclusive pledge to Mail readers.

But there on the front page, looming over her – as he does over the entire political landscape, at least in his own mind – was “BORIS: Starmer would be the most dangerous and Left-wing Labour PM since the 1970s”.

How did this new-found even-handedness play out inside? Not quite so well.
Rachel’s essay found its place on page seven, under the headline “Nobody’s going to give a box of matches back to the arsonists who burnt the house down”. She was talking about Sunak and Truss, but the cynical might suspect that the Mail wanted its readers, conditioned to believe that Labour can’t be trusted on the economy, might interpret it differently.

Before that in the paper, though, was a story claiming Angela Rayner’s plan for workers’ rights was going to cost £41bn a year. Says who? “According to analysis by the Conservatives”. Which Conservatives and where their research had been published was not disclosed.

Then came “Now Labour could hike university fees… in spite of promising to scrap them”. That one came out of Bridget Phillipson’s appearance on Question Time in which she said raising fees would be unpalatable, while declining categorically to rule it out.

After Reeves had had her say, there was coverage of Gove the “inveterate plotter” joining the Tory exodus, and a “sinking ship” jibe at Sunak’s Titanic visit.

But normal service was resumed by Johnson, “on typical swashbuckling form”, as the leader column put it (did anyone at the paper actually read the previous week’s offering about a dead duckling?). He had his rant promoted into the Saturday essay slot on the paper’s comment spread, where the full-drop editorial reaffirmed the paper’s “agenda-setting” status.

This had been demonstrated by (for once) allowing both sides to have a say. It then told Rishi to be bold. The Mail has never liked Sunak, but it still wants him to win. Not so much wavering as frowning.

If it’s bold you want, “bring back national service” isn’t a bad offering. This idea was “exclusively” announced in the Mail on Sunday. In company with the Observer, Express, Mirror, People, Times, Telegraph and Sun – though, to be fair, Sunak did supply a “my daughters” bylined piece about youngsters doing their bit.

It also helped with the “REAL election battleground” boast, with the Monday paper harvesting online comments and commissioning “for” and “against” columns. Which would have been nicely balanced, were it not for the front-page splash and the succeeding double-page spread, which were basically “what a wonderful idea from brave Rishi”.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer was guilty of a “cynical ploy to skew the political landscape forever” by proposing that more young people could do their bit by voting. Isn’t extending the franchise to 16-year-olds an equally hot topic for a “great debate” spread?

If you go to work and pay taxes, shouldn’t you be allowed a voice? If you’re too young to smoke, drink, marry or even get a tattoo, are you mature enough to decide how the country should be run?

So how about the Mail having a look at both sides of that argument? Don’t be daft.

The real “real election battleground” (for now) is, of course, not the pages of the Daily Mail, but the generational divide. While feckless teenagers (who can’t be bothered to go to the polling station) must do more, pensioners (who dutifully turn out on election day) must be protected, cosseted even.

The pension triple lock has delivered almost another thousand pounds this year and now the Conservatives plan to enhance that with the promise of an extra two quid a week – enough to cover a year’s subscription to the print versions of either TNE or the Mail on Sunday. Yippee!

This promise was hailed in Tuesday’s Express as “a bumper pension rise” and by the Sun as an “annual £2k boost” for “gold age pensioners”. Two quid a week or two grand a year? That doesn’t add up.

And it’s not a “pension rise”, it is a “not a tax deduction”. Tax thresholds have been frozen since, it seems, forever and will be for the foreseeable future.
By next year the basic tax threshold will be lower than the state pension, producing a situation where even those with no secondary income would have to pay tax on their benefit. Not a good election look – as was pointed out to the chancellor when he “ignored” pensioners in his NI-cutting budget in March.

So while the “working people” both parties are supposed to be so concerned about would still have to pay tax on income over £12,500, the Tories would give over-65s an extra allowance to keep them out of the net. And that allowance would keep rising so they never paid tax on the basic pension.
The Sun’s “annual £2k boost” is reached by taking the triple-lock predicted over the next five years plus the new tax allowance. Since Labour has also said it will maintain the triple-lock, the £2k can’t fairly be sold as “Rishi’s election offer”.

Even if it could, it is impossible to predict where the formula will take pensions in five years’ time (who knows what inflation will do, what pay rises will be?). The figure is fantasy.

The Express is an honours graduate of the “Rishi (or Jeremy) says” university of journalism. “PM: I’m fighting for our nation’s future”, “Be warned! Taxes will go up under Labour, says Hunt”, “Rishi lashes out! ‘Starmer hasn’t courage to face me on television’”. It is happy to follow wherever Downing Street wants to go.

Other right wingers with the same ultimate intended destination are more adventurous in taking side roads and rat runs they have found for themselves. And they have parked their Chelsea tractors outside private schools.

“Labour’s class war begins on day one” announced a Mail splash last September, apparently shocked that the party intended to put a policy – imposing VAT on private school fees – into practice the moment it gained power.

Now that day seems closer, the Telegraph and Mail have been upping the ante. The Times set the tone a couple of weeks ago with a Saturday splash (alongside a photograph of Mrs Sunak) on “Testing time for private schools as belts tighten”.

Enrolments were down by 2.7% this academic year, the biggest proportion in more than a decade, and the total number of pupils at independent schools had fallen by 0.1% – the first fall since 2013, apart from during the pandemic. Yes, you read that right: 0.1%.

This story was written from the perspective of the schools and whether their businesses would survive the tax. Not, as you might have expected, from that of the parents who might have to dig deeper for the school fees.

The Sunday Telegraph this week took a similar approach with “Labour’s VAT raid blamed for closure of private school”. The fact that Labour is yet in the position to conduct any such raid is by the by; let’s accept it as shorthand for “Fear of…”

On Monday, the daily version of the Telegraph was back on the case with a page lead (alongside a photograph of Mrs Sunak, this time with her husband) saying pupils with special needs would suffer because of the “private school tax raid”. A leader column said “Labour’s VAT raid” would attack bursaries and was a reckless policy that would damage the education of our children.

On Tuesday it reported that state schools cannot absorb children who would continue to study at independent schools were it not for this new tax.
The Mail meanwhile was splashing on “Four in ten to quit private school under Keir’s tax”. A “major report” had found that state schools would be “swamped” if fees rise.

This report was compiled by Baines Cutler, which describes itself as “the leading experts in financial benchmarking and strategic advice” for independent schools. So a totally disinterested party. It has surveyed fee-paying parents and a lot of them have said they might take their kids out of private schools if charges go up.

This, according to the right wing papers, would be a bad thing because it would (a) deny bursary and scholarship pupils the opportunity of a better education and (b) overwhelm the state system, which is struggling to find teachers and pay for equipment. Which might be reasonable arguments if these same papers also wondered why those state schools are struggling and why, if it is indeed the case, there are not enough places for every child in the country.

These papers have relentlessly pushed for cuts in the public sector and denounced teachers who went on strike after being offered a 3% pay rise when inflation was in double figures. They eventually settled for 6.5% (the triple lock gave pensioners an 8.4% increase). Yet they hold their hands up in horror when Rachel Reeves and Bridget Phillipson say that private schools will have to find savings to pay their bills, just as everyone else has to.
For the record, just over half a million children go to private school; 10.3 million go to state schools.

The Mail on Sunday touched on the disquiet/anger/fury of Conservative MPs at having the election “sprung on them” (Steve Baker was delightfully devil-may-care in talking to the Mirror about going ahead with his holiday), angling its story on Penny Mordaunt (deliberately?) missing the cabinet meeting for which David Cameron flew back from Albania. Buried in the text was a sentence saying that the decision to go for a summer poll had been taken a month ago. “Amazingly for Westminster,” the story continued, “the news held”.

Really? This story appeared on May 26. On April 26, the Friday before the local elections, every political commentator was tweeting that Westminster was abuzz with rumours that Sunak was going to call the election the following Monday. This was, the rumour mill had it, to pre-empt a leadership challenge after what were expected to be dire results. Some put words to paper or online, fleshing out the theories. Then everything calmed down. It was all a misunderstanding. Labour activists had been put on election alert and speculation had got out of control.

Maybe. Or maybe the news didn’t hold quite as well as the MoS thought and someone caught the bolting horse in the nick of time.

Still with the Mail on Sunday, it seems that even with the election campaign underway there is no end to the Tory plotting and scheming. “Skullduggery and backbiting sees Boris backers purged as shires select 100 new candidates”.

Is there a purge? And if so, is it a terrible thing? Was it right for Labour to purge itself of suspected anti-Semites or even Corbynites? Answer: welcome, but you still can’t trust it.

More to the point, was it right for Johnson to purge his party of Remainers and to demand that every one of his 365 candidates in 2019 sign a pledge to back his Brexit deal – whatever it turned out to be. Answer: you bet you. It was the will of the people.

So this anti-Boris purge? “We should never have got rid of Boris. It’s like taking off your centre forward” says one anonymous ex-minister. So there’s your answer.

And here’s another in a poll purportedly showing that Labour’s majority would be reduced by 114 if Boris were still in charge. Dream on! He’s not even going to be in the country for most of the campaign.

That Deltapoll survey was, according to Glen Owen, almost universally bleak for the Tories across all measures, with Labour and Starmer ahead on everything from leadership to economic management, from migration to who would be the better companion while watching the Euros. The only “faint glimmer of good news” that he detected for the Tories was that 43 per cent thought that Angela Rayner should stand down while the police investigated her living arrangements.

Ah well, it was a nice idea while it lasted. Now Greater Manchester Police have decided after “a thorough, carefully considered and proportionate investigation” to take no further action. Owen, who set the hare running, his paper and, most especially, columnist Dan Hodges – who produced a tweet almost daily for 45 days, demanding that she explain herself – must be gutted. Hodges says not. He had thought all along that the police should never be involved. She should, he tweeted, publish the evidence and let people make up their own minds. Who needs the legal system? The court of public opinion is just so much more reliable.

All of which brings to mind the Mail splash headline when the Met called a halt to the Partygate investigation: “What a farcical waste of time”.

Johnson liked to portray himself as a One Nation Tory and the party has certainly moved to the right under his successors. But not far enough for the Sun’s veteran commentator Trevor Kavanagh.

He claims the party is now “Labour-lite” and deserves a kicking after “governing like squabbling clowns and turning the party of firm government, strong defence and low tax into a pinkish version of socialist Labour”. Now, he predicts, we are destined to taste genuine red meat – and we shall swiftly regret it.

Kavanagh runs through the usual menu of terrible things Labour will do – while at the same time complaining that voters don’t know what they’re getting – and then moves on to say that not only do voters not know the policies, they haven’t a clue about the people behind them either. Times Radio had run a poll to see who was recognised and how they were rated. Only Angela Rayner, David Lammy and Rachel Reeves scored well. Listeners thought more highly of a fictional shadow minister than of some real ones.
But why weren’t they recognised? Because they are ineffectual or poor at getting their message across. Or because the mainstream media prefers to give its news space and air time to Sunak, Tice and Farage?

It has, by all accounts, been a torrid launch week for the Conservatives, what with the rain-soaked announcement, the resignations and defections, the Titanic, the Welsh football gaffe and more. But if the strategists have been successful at one thing it has been to get everyone, and particularly Sunak, to chant the mantra “they don’t have a plan”.

The right wing press, as we saw with the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh, had been hammering the same point. Labour don’t have any policies – except they must have; otherwise why are they making a fuss about school fees, workers’ rights, votes at 16?

And if they have no policies, how come that on Tuesday they had the endorsement of 120 businesses, entrepreneurs, investors in a letter to the Times, which made the paper’s front-page splash?

The Telegraph has already come out for Sunak, the Express will do likewise – unless it goes completely off-piste and backs Reform. The Mail will keep its powder dry and then pronounce on the front page why, in spite of everything, we should all vote for the man it denounced two years ago as a Machiavellian back-stabbing Brutus.

After the event, it will declare itself the official opposition. The Guardian, Mirror and i are all equally predictable in that they will support Starmer. The Sun still seems minded to back Rishi, although it will do whatever the big boss says.

But what about the Thunderer – aka the Times? Will it stick with the Tories for ideological reasons after long rumination and soul-searching? Will it simply take the traditional Murdoch approach of backing the winner?

Or could it go rogue, as it did in pressing for Remain in the referendum, make the sensible choice for sensible reasons, and look forward in anticipation rather than desperation? We can but hope.

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