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How the Daily Mail wrecked the Tory Party

A former editor says the paper’s unquestioning support allowed the Conservatives to lose perspective

Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

If you thought the Daily Mail was an enemy of journalism whose extreme partisanship is partly responsible not only for Brexit, but also for the loss of trust in the Press and politicians, and even the coming implosion of the Tory party, you’re not alone.

You find yourself in the company of the paper’s former editor, Geordie Greig, who used last night’s Hugh Cudlipp lecture to put the boot in to both his predecessor, Paul Dacre, and his successor, Ted Verity – although he named neither. The former had run a questionable campaign to get Britain to vote Leave; the latter had “wallpapered over” Tory scandals in the Johnson era.

And far from helping the Conservatives, Greig surmised that they may have made matters worse. Sir John Curtice had put declining levels of trust in politicians down to disillusionment over Brexit among Leave voters, which led Greig to wonder: “Did parts of the Tory press in Britain exacerbate the problems of the Tory Party by losing perspective and being too partisan?”

Greig had been editor of the Mail on Sunday at the time of the referendum and the animus between him and Dacre on the daily was well chronicled. While Dacre went all out to secure Brexit, Greig was backing Remain. “We campaigned vigorously,” he said last night. “But we reported both sides of the argument – and we certainly did not vilify those campaigning on the other side. The Mail on Sunday’s sister paper, the Daily Mail, shall we say… took a different view of Brexit. No one could question that. But its coverage of contentious slogans on red buses? Claims that it would solve all our immigration problems? Pillorying those who disagreed with them? That can be questioned.”

Greig moved to the daily after Dacre’s first “retirement” on his 70th birthday in 2018, and was immediately cautioned by the man upstairs not to reverse the paper’s support for Brexit. It was in its DNA. To do so would be commercial suicide. He didn’t, and while there was a noticeable softening of approach under his leadership, the paper was still solidly Conservative, impatient of many aspects of society that infuriated Dacre, and supportive of Johnson in the election the following year.

In his lecture at the London Press Club last night, Greig portrayed his approach as that of a critical friend. “Long before Partygate”, he said, his paper had been the first to “shine a laser light on highly inappropriate goings on under his leadership”. These included the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, Carrie Johnson’s influence, the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle trip and the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal, “Specifically, Johnson’s disgraceful attempt to use it to neuter the whole system for tackling political sleaze – and protect his cronies”.

This last had prompted him to run a splash headlined “Sleaze is back”, coupled with a poll showing that the Conservatives were thought of as the sleaziest government in 40 years. Two weeks later he was sacked. And in came Verity, who had succeeded him at the Sunday paper and turned it into a stridently Brexit-supporting organ. He would swiftly return the daily to the Dacre mould (albeit with added football, which the great man despised).

“The moment my tenure ended, Johnson could be forgiven for thinking he’d gone to heaven. The paper downplayed the scandals that eventually forced him to resign.  You might say they wallpapered over them.

“And after Johnson, who did the Mail – and the Telegraph and the Daily Express – campaign for to succeed him and restore the Conservatives’ reputation?  Liz Truss.”

Indeed it did, simultaneously putting the knife into Penny Mordaunt and denouncing Rishi Sunak as a Machiavellian plotter who had betrayed the party’s greatest electoral asset. Over the six-week leadership campaign (which included the period of mourning for the Queen) the Mail ran at least 30 lead stories on how great Truss was or how awful her rivals were. And once she was in office, it was soon celebrating with the front page: “At last! A true Tory budget”.

The Mail seems to have forgotten this recently. Last week it published a Dominic Lawson column headlined “Starmer backed Corbyn while Sunak warned against Truss. It’s clear which man really puts country before party”. Last night, Greig was scathing of both Truss and the Press that helped her to office: “Her calamitous budget was greeted by her supporters in the commentariat as a triumph, with one [Allister Heath of the Telegraph] enthusing it was ‘the best budget I have ever heard a chancellor deliver’. ‘I had to pinch myself I wasn’t dreaming,’ he wrote.

“Millions of ordinary people weren’t dreaming when the economy crashed, interest and mortgage rates shot up and pension funds plunged. Homeowners, people who had worked and saved hard for their retirement – the very people Conservative newspapers claim to stand for – thrown to the wolves.

“Not enemies of the people exactly, but perhaps enemies of accurate, prescient journalism?

“When Truss stood for leader, the right-wing papers collectively said:  ‘If the Conservative Party doesn’t unite behind Truss, oblivion beckons.’ The Conservative Party did unite behind her – and now appears to be facing oblivion… spent and ruined.”

Quite how spent and ruined, quite how far into oblivion we shall discover next week. For the time being, Greig is clearly savouring his dish of cold revenge.

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