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Paul Dacre: A bloody awful man

Writing a play about two female rivals led to a depressing realisation about who really wields power in Britain

Paul Dacre. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty

Theresa May and Gina Miller might well be the nominal protagonists of my play Bloody Difficult Women – and the case they fought in the courts over parliamentary sovereignty its inspiration – but both women were ultimately merely the reluctant victims of events.

Miller, a devoted mother and wife with a background in the City, had never before shown any great interest in getting involved in political activism. She surprised herself as much as her friends by what she did: the champion of parliamentary democracy when Parliament itself couldn’t be bothered to fight for it.

May, wooden, shy and desperately insecure – the title of the play is a nod to Ken Clarke’s famous off-mic description of her – was the last person in the world anyone would have expected to become prime minister, let alone to be pushing hard for Brexit after campaigning against it in the EU referendum. A doomed, tragic character, May never had the chance to make good on the noble vision she had for levelling up the country that she set out on the steps of Downing Street on her first day in office.

These two women were, as I say, ultimately only the victims of events. It was Paul Dacre, Miller’s tormentor-in-chief at the Daily Mail and the man who campaigned so vigorously to install May as prime minister, who was orchestrating them. Given the narrow margin by which the UK voted to leave
the EU, the Daily Mail coming out so stridently for Brexit was decisive.

In common with a lot of Dacre’s former and I dare say even serving journalists, I found the series of decisions he made during this period mystifying. Dacre was, after all, the protege of the late Sir David English, a
passionate Europhile who ensured his newspaper fought hard for Britain to
join the European community.

Charming and outward-looking, Sir David created the modern Daily Mail. He championed at every opportunity ambitious women whom he shrewdly
identified as the key market for his paper in the 1980s. “Every woman needs her Daily Mail” was one of the most resonant advertising slogans of Thatcherite Britain.

Dacre’s position on Brexit, his hostility to Miller – whom Sir David would, I’ve no doubt, have loved – and his notorious “Enemies of the People” headline – a no-holds-barred attack on the high court judges who had found
for Miller in her case against May – would undoubtedly have had his distinguished predecessor turning in his grave.

Still, Dacre admitted he was angry when David Cameron, as prime minister, contacted his proprietor, Lord Rothermere, and – so Dacre recounted it – tried to have him sacked because he was being so unhelpful during the early stages of the referendum campaign. Cameron’s singularly clueless phone call to Lord Rothermere, Dacre has accepted, weighed on his mind as he decided whether to tell the Daily Mail’s readers to vote for Leave or Remain.

I had worked for Dacre for 10 years up until the Millennium, and, as unfashionable as it is to say it now, I had the greatest respect for him as a
newspaperman. The Daily Mail was in the 1990s accepted within the industry as the most competitive and professional of all the national newspapers.

Dacre was a great news man – the news pages of the Mail during his glory days were second to none – but, since Brexit reared its ugly head, it has
infected the whole paper. The emphasis is less on news these days than on shouty, opinionated pieces that always seem to hold out the increasingly forlorn hope that Brexit can yet somehow turn out well. One man’s obsession seems to permeate every nook and cranny of the paper.

There was a brief interregnum when Geordie Greig usurped Dacre as editor
of the Daily Mail and the paper seemed to become more rational. But this, it appeared, was too much for Lord Rothermere.

Greig abruptly departed and Dacre is now back at the Mail in a grandee role, but he is clearly once again pulling the strings. The Daily Mail is now telling its readers to “move on” from Partygate, when even the Daily Telegraph – the so-called Borisograph – is having its doubts.

I see something of the late newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook in Dacre who, in the late 1920s and early 30s, happened to be equally obsessive about Empire Free Trade – all about establishing the British empire as a free trade bloc – but, as dementedly as his newspapers kept banging on about it, it went nowhere.

It saddens me that Dacre – as successful and able a newspaperman in his way as characters such as Ben Bradlee and Harry Evans – will almost certainly now be remembered not for his journalism, but for an equally crackpot political ideology and his alignment to a group of profoundly flawed here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians. That, and of course the job at the broadcasting regulator Ofcom he eventually decided he didn’t want.

It struck me, writing Bloody Difficult Women, that Miller’s cases, and how
people behaved in the period when they were ongoing, said almost everything there was to say about the political drama that has played out in
this country in recent years. It was powered not by hard facts and reason,
but by a series of strong and weak personalities.

There is also something depressingly Victorian about the whole drama, both in my dramatisation and in real life: it’s dominated by a powerful, proud old
man. All that the women were left to do was to try to clear up the mess.

Tim Walker’s Bloody Difficult Women begins its run at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, West London, on February 24.

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