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The press, the manifestos and the end of scrutiny

The papers aren’t bystanders any more – they’re political participants

Photo: Benjamin Cremel - WPA Pool/Getty Images

It’s manifesto week in the Great British Vote-Off tent, and the editors would like the contestants to make lots of delicious promises. But there’s a twist: the treats deemed the tastiest by Ted and Victoria, Gary and Chris will never be served, while those cast aside as unpalatable will most likely turn out to be the ones customers choose.

Oh how our judges drool over the taxes to be cut, the migrants to be deported, the extra police, the help for young families – even while wishing for a little more piquancy, something a little more daring, in Rishi’s dishes. “Reddies, steady, go, go go!” enthuses Victoria Newton, editor of the Sun. “Buy these,” urges Gary Jones of the Express. Chris Evans at the Telegraph broadly agrees, while Ted Verity of the Mail is more concerned that we don’t get food poisoning from other confections yet to come out of the oven.

The newspapers play a vital role in our democracy, and they are never more important than at election time. A responsible press would present readers with the rival parties’ policies, analyse them, check the claims for truth and deliverability and leave the electorate in a position to make an informed choice. Some hope. The Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph and Mirror are not observers in this contest, they are players, with four of them batting for one side and only one for the other. The Times and Guardian meanwhile watch from the stands, supporting their teams with feigned indifference.

And so we have had three days of Sunak’s manifesto and what he plans to do should he be re-elected next month – a result even his staunchest supporters regard as most unlikely. Take the Express, which started with the pre-pre-announcement on Monday with a “vow” to recruit 8,000 police. This was followed yesterday with the pre-launch briefing, which gave us “Up the workers! PM promises 2p cut in national insurance”. Today, now the document has finally been published, it is “Tory ambition to deport 100,000 (in red) illegal migrants”.

Over those three days, the paper has devoted 12 news pages (quite apart from the leader and comment pages) to what Rishi says, and a further two to defending him against Nigel Farage’s assertion that he is unpatriotic and doesn’t understand “our culture”. That is 14 out of the 18 pages devoted to the election so far this week. A week that has also seen the publication of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, the resignation of Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, a row over a Reform candidate who said we should have been neutral against Hitler, another voter throwing something at Farage, and probably a bit of campaigning by the party that is on course to win power. 

Though Express readers wouldn’t know about that. They just know that Labour has an economic “black hole” and that Emily Thornberry doesn’t mind if state school class sizes get a bit bigger to accommodate the huge exodus of children from the private sector that will result from her party’s vindictive class-war plans to put VAT on school fees.

And what about scrutiny of Sunak’s published plans? Well there’s a sentence at the bottom of today’s splash from Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies saying he had a “degree of scepticism” about whether the promised tax cuts could be financed by cutting £12bn from the welfare bill. Will that do?

Like the Express, the Telegraph and Times have both splashed for two consecutive days on the Sunak manifesto and the Mail returns today from a five-day election “holiday” to urge readers “Don’t give Labour a blank cheque”. It offers a gut of the document and has political editor Jason Groves asking if, maybe, it might be enough to stem the losses. That’s as good as it gets these days: anything short of annihilation is now a win. 

And to confirm the gloomy outlook, here’s a page and a half on an Ashcroft poll showing Reform closing the gap, while the Telegraph has another survey showing Farage’s personal approval rating soaring as Sunak’s dives. But never mind about that. Here, gracing the Telegraph front page, is a picture of the prime minister’s wife looking lovely in yellow, while the puff column wonders where Lady Starmer is hiding.

Yet still acres of newsprint are devoted to those £17bn of tax cuts and the hundreds of Rwanda flights that will never happen.

Even more bizarre are the Mail and Times leaders that say Sunak should have been bolder – where were the abolition of inheritance tax and stamp duty, the exit from the European Court of Human Rights? – what did he have to lose? Quite right. Why not also promise a pink elephant for every newborn and a fat-busting drug that also cures cancer and wards off dementia?

On the other side of the divide, the Guardian took the IFS scepticism and mixed it into a bucket of cold water from the Resolution Foundation to lead on “Tories’ ‘implausible’ £17bn tax giveaway condemned”. Which is straight out of the Mail playbook – if you don’t agree with what someone says, angle your coverage on someone else saying how wrong they are.

You can see the dilemma. A serious paper cannot ignore the ruling party’s election manifesto, even when it is abundantly clear that it will never be put into effect. If the Guardian were to go wholeheartedly down the Mail route, it would have splashed on Gaza or Ukraine or something worthy, and pushed the don’t-believe-a-word-of-this rubbishing to the 10-12 spread. But it couldn’t do that, so it did the duty thing. Good for Kath Viner, the Guardian’s editor.

But what of the previous day? “Tory right plans to give Sunak set of demands if manifesto falls flat”. What? Group of people about to lose power will put pressure on man about to lose power to take a tougher stance on immigration and human rights law if the public doesn’t suddenly change its mind and think they’re all wonderful. How is he supposed to do that? And would it make any difference if he did? What world do these people live in?

It’s so much easier when you’re a redtop tabloid, like the Mirror. Then you can sideline all the Rishi promises and zoom in on that ITV interview that necessitated the prime minister’s early departure from Normandy. Yes, he had a privileged upbringing and went to an elite school, but he knew what it meant to go without. He didn’t have Sky TV. After Lizzy Buchan’s D-Day scoop last week, this was another bullseye, this time from political editor John Stevens.

Yesterday, while most of the press were looking forward to what Sunak was going to promise, he was again looking the other way, this time at a Labour pledge to ban the sale of energy drinks to under-16s. An interesting one this, since this was a policy put forward by the Tories five years ago, one which Matt Hancock said was definitely going to become law, but which was questioned by Boris Johnson and finally binned by Sajid Javid. Not that the Mirror mentioned all that – it just said Jamie Oliver was very happy and cited its own “Can it!” campaign from ages ago.

Never mind the detail. The Mirror, which went AWOL during the Brexit referendum and carries the entire weight of the popular left on its shoulders, is quietly playing a blinder.

Oh, and that D-Day blunder still isn’t going away. Even the right wing papers report this morning that Sunak apologised to Paul Brand for being late for his pre-record interview because the Normandy commemorations “just ran over”.

Reform is not the only party closing in on the Tories. A YouGov poll yesterday had the Conservatives on 18%, Reform on 17% and the LibDems up four points at 15%. Ed Davey, who has been mocked for his campaign stunts, is now within shouting distance of becoming the leader of the opposition.

The bounce came after the launch of his party’s manifesto on Monday, which was followed by a trip to Thorpe Park. Cue photographs of him on a rollercoaster to add to the paddleboard, the water slide, the bike and the drumming “We Will Rock You” on a medicine ball.

The default position for most newspapers (of all political persuasions) is to treat him as a joke, the centrist dad with the silly blue walls and Jenga kits to knock down. Which might be logical had Boris Johnson dangling from a zip wire or driving a JCB through some polystyrene bricks not been widely presented as “Look what our jolly japes hero is doing now”.

But isn’t it time to take the LibDems more seriously and to look at what they’re offering the electorate? Yesterday’s Times and Guardian both gave the manifesto the “proper” point-by-point treatment, while the Express wrote it off as a picture panel. For the Telegraph, which led on Sunak’s won’t-happen tax breaks for landlords, it brought up the rear of four inside pages with the threat of a “500% increase” in council tax on second homes.

The Mail, which pushed its entire election coverage back to page 12, gave a third of its space to the Lib Dems. Sounds promising. Sort of. The page lead was “We’ll reverse Brexit and make cannabis legal”. Not exactly Mail-friendly policies. It was unsurprising, then, that there was no detailed breakdown. And anyway, there wasn’t room, because here was a sketch about the Lib Dem manifesto launch from Quentin Letts under the headline “One of the most emotively manipulative pieces of saccharine hucksterism I’ve had thrust down my gullet”.

If that wasn’t offensive enough, try the text: “Simultaneous to his high jinks, Sir Ed wants us to feel sorry for him, so he keeps talking about being a carer [he has a disabled son] and having been orphaned as a teenager. He did this again at the manifesto launch, describing his parents’ early deaths. At one point he choked back tears. He will consider this a presentational success. On me, alas, it merely had the effect of a slice of overly rich carrot cake. After you with that sick bowl, Perkins.”

Letts was back on duty yesterday for the Tory manifesto launch at Silverstone, where Sunak “skipped on to the stage” and “looked perky, entirely undented by the obliteration everyone he has decided he was facing”. So that’s all right then.

Back to the LibDems and the Sun, which made crystal clear what it thinks (a) of their policies and (b) of the notion of straight informative reporting. “Britain will ride back into the clutches of the European Union and open borders under Liberal Democrat plans announced yesterday,” wrote Ryan Sabey. 

Noting Davey’s rollercoaster ride and previous stunts, the 300-word story continued that the party wanted to rejoin the single market, allow free movement and give votes to EU citizens. The 116-page document sought to put the relationship with Brussels on a more “formal and stable” footing. Those three words were the only quote from the manifesto or anyone connected with the party.

But at the end, there was room for this: “Tory Cabinet Minister Steve Barclay said: ‘Giving foreigners the right to vote is nothing more than a plot to take the UK back into the EU by stealth.’ He added: ‘At least the Lib Dems are open about their intentions to reverse Brexit. Labour have persistently shown they too want to drag us closer to Brussels and have already fiddled the ballot box in Wales to help them. A vote for the Lib Dems is a vote to put Keir Starmer in Downing Street.’”

Isn’t objective journalism a wonderful thing?

The Greens publish their manifesto today. There are some half-decent prelims in some of the papers today (the Guardian obviously). They outpolled Reform in the local elections, but if Farage pulls a face somewhere today, he will get a big picture while the Greens are relegated to the bottom corner of a spread or the end-of-the-run half page.

Then comes the big one. Labour launches its manifesto – the one that will actually be put to the test – tomorrow. I can’t wait for all the advance splashes in the morning and the full coverage on Friday. The opening day of a football tournament couldn’t possibly overshadow the big reveal of what our next prime minister intends to do once he takes office. Could it?

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