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The Mail is the new Project Fear

As the polls continue to point to a heavy Conservative defeat, the Daily Mail’s analysis of Labour is getting hysterical

Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers the leader's speech, covered in glitter after a protestor stormed the stage on the third day of the Labour Party conference. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

If someone dear to you were about to drive off a cliff, you’d likely do all you could to stop them. Assuming you’re not Thelma or Louise. 

We Remainers know all about this, having desperately sought to persuade the country not to vote for Brexit. Every warning we shouted has become horrible reality. There is no Brexit bonanza, Brexit boost, Brexit benefit. Unicorns are not skipping across the sunlit uplands. 

But where’s the fun in being right when we’re all suffering?

Back in 2016, Leave campaigners had a phrase for our warnings: Project Fear. Be bold, they cried, don’t listen to the cowards. Put your foot down and head for that cliff. There will be parachutes and safety nets to keep us all safe. And shouting loudest of all was the Daily Mail.

Well, now it knows how we felt. Because Project Fear 2.0 is upon us, and the Mail is pumping out the scariest stories. With the Telegraph clinging to its coat tails, while the Sun and Express try to keep up at the back.

Impartial reporting has never been the Mail’s forte. It supports the Conservatives, always has. It assumes its middle-class aspirational readers do, too, and prides itself on “speaking for the people”.

It has been shaking its head (but not too strongly) at this current Conservative government virtually from the start of the pandemic. Lockdown was wrong. Partygate was a storm in a teacup (Beergate, naturally, was a scandal). 

Boris Johnson may have made some mistakes, told a few porkies, spent too much money on his wallpaper, but he was a winner. Tory MPs should stop agonising over a birthday cake that never left its Tupperware box and “handsy” deputy chief whips. For heaven’s sake, don’t they realise there’s a war on? The squabbling should end, taxes should be cut and they should all knuckle down and do as they’re told.

When they didn’t and instead felled their giant, the Mail decided Rishi Sunak was to blame. Party members should be offered a decent right winger as an alternative, Liz Truss would do nicely. And she won. Hurrah! At last a true Tory budget! And then she lost. Billions of pounds, all credibility, a race against a lettuce and, finally, the Mail

The paper that didn’t want Sunak as prime minister or Jeremy Hunt as chancellor now finds itself championing both. Even though between them they lifted taxes to a 70-year high. 

For four years, the Mail has been complaining about Tory chaos, while insisting that they are the party that should be supported and re-elected. Because the alternative is just too awful to contemplate. Captain Hindsight, Captain Crasheroony Snoozefest, Sir Flip-Flop, that ocean-going dud that any possible leader – Truss, Sunak, even Mordaunt – would wipe the floor with, could not and cannot be trusted.

The public appears not to agree, seems willing to give the boring old socialist a go. When Sunak’s manifesto promise of £17bn of tax cuts didn’t shift the dial – in the right direction anyway – panic set in. When Starmer published Labour’s programme, it turned to hysteria. Any attempt to keep a straight face, or a handle on rationality, was abandoned.

As calm, sensible people, New European readers are unlikely to look too closely at our country’s bestselling paper, so it might be helpful to reproduce some of the headlines from last Friday and Saturday, starting with the lead headline on the day after the Labour manifesto launch: “What is Labour not telling us about tax hikes?” “After a manifesto big on windy promises and small on detail, even left wing thinktank warns of ‘a parliament of tax rises’.”

The convention for serious papers – which includes those that take themselves seriously – on such occasions is to “gut” the document in question, to go through policies subject by subject: economy, NHS, defence, migration, and so forth. This is what the Mail did with Sunak’s offering last Wednesday.

Not so for Labour, whose manifesto is more likely to be put into effect. This was delivered to readers across two spreads that contained two substantial stories, a sketch about smug, stultifying tsar Starmer, two full-page opinion pieces and a series of bite-sized nuggets. 

Rather than quote, without comment, from the manifesto – as had been the formula three days earlier – these were interpretations of policy. So plans to give 16-year-olds the vote were rendered “Lowering voting age is ‘attempt to rig system’”, with Conservative deputy chairman Jonathan Gullis’s opinion taking the lion’s share of what little space was available. The pattern was repeated with “Business backlash over work rights shake-up” and “Equality plan panned as ‘bonanza for lawyers’”. 

The next two pages had “two voices of experience” – Mail columnists Stephen Glover and Alex Brummer – giving their verdicts. The headlines on each of these consisted of two sentences, the first in black, the second in red. 

Glover’s said: “This hollow, dispiriting document is so threadbare it’s almost funny. I give it three years before Labour are as hated as the Tories are now”. Brummer’s read: “Starmer’s claim that Labour are the real wealth creators is pure hooey. Their policies risk killing the lifeblood of our economy”.

Further back came the leader decrying this “dangerous” manifesto, a piece by Jan Moir taking a pop at Wes Streeting, and then finally, in the Secrets and Lives section on page 34, the most nauseating article of all: “My fears at being forced into a state school by Labour’s new class war”. This was bylined “by a private schoolboy, aged 14”.  

This lad wrote that his family had to move from the Peak District to Kent because of his dad’s work as a financier. “Until now, me and my brother – he’s 16, I’m 14 – have always attended private school…” (a private school that clearly doesn’t teach grammar). The fees came to £30,000 a year and they’d had to go without things like foreign holidays and a large home (are we getting the Sunak “no Sky TV” vibe here?) to manage them.

There was a chance when they moved south that they might not be able to continue with private education because of the competition for places and ever-rising fees – ah well, never mind, we’ll go to “a nice secondary school in a nice area”. But now, with Labour threatening VAT on fees, his parents had decided they couldn’t risk even trying to enrol their sons in a private school. 

“To make matters worse, they warned me that the best state schools are so oversubscribed and places so fiercely contested, I may not end up in a school environment with kids who enjoy school and want to work hard to pass their exams like me.”

And he’s panicking. His mum has told him some of the “harsh realities” of the state system, courtesy of the experience of her friends with children in state schools. So now he’s going to try to get into a grammar school, which will involve taking entrance exams.

Enough of this agony. Assuming this child is genuine, he probably is nervous and full of trepidation. Setting aside the obvious “what about the millions of kids who don’t have your advantages?”, who thought it a good idea to commission such a piece? To make a child the mouthpiece to make a political point? Someone willing to pull any lever if it stops the Labour train. 

There was still more on Saturday: Boris Johnson on “Starmergeddon” and Andrew Neil warning: “Brace yourself! If you’re saving for a pension or nursing a nest egg or living in a valuable home, you can be pretty certain Labour is coming for you”. 

These followed a spread on Labour policies as seen through the eyes of two Tory ministers – and illustrated with pictures of those two ministers – Laura Trott saying Labour is planning 17 tax rises and Johnny Mercer saying it wants to jail veterans. (Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph, they were playing the same game in more muted form. “Labour forced to deny CGT on family homes”, read the page 4 lead on Saturday. As in “have you stopped beating your wife?” Someone dreams up a policy, Labour ignores it, but eventually says “we’re not doing that” and so has been “forced” to deny it. And you never believe anyone who is “forced” to deny something, do you?)

Back at the Mail, the Trott spread was followed by a piece from investigations editor Tom Kelly in Prague. Gosh! They’ve nailed him at last: “How young Starmer ended up in communist spy files”. As a student, he went to work in Czechoslovakia renovating monuments to victims of Nazi atrocities. Unbeknown to him – yes, unbeknown to him – his activities were being monitored and his name, date of birth, passport number and family history were logged in secret police files. How could such a man ever be allowed to become our prime minister?

The Mail’s desperation becomes more apparent by the day. It realises the game is up, but it keeps fighting and will keep digging for more damaging dirt than a dusty police file on an idealistic student. Out of concern for the country, its readers, its own business? It has presumably been labouring under the assumption that it is speaking to like-minded Conservatives, looking out for their interests.

But now here’s a thing. The pollsters Redfield and Wilton have just conducted a survey of voting intentions that analyses results according to where the respondent gets their news. Unsurprisingly, 60% of those for whom GB News is the primary news source planned to vote for Reform, falling to 30% of those who “typically” watched the channel.  Equally predictably, 50% of those who cited the Guardian as their primary source of news and 51% of those who depend on the Mirror, intended to vote Labour.

So what of our staunch Tory papers, the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express? Well, about a fifth of Mail and Telegraph readers intended to vote for Reform, against 17% of Sun readers and 15% who read the Express. Ah, they’re more loyal to Sunak then? Up to a point, Lord Copper. In spite of all the “Rishi says” headlines in the Express, only 28% of its readers planned to vote Conservative. And that was as good as it got for the Tories. They scored only 23% apiece from Sun and Telegraph readers, against 26% of those who depend on the Mail.

And this is where it really hurts. For 45% of respondents whose main news source is the Sun were planning to vote Labour – that’s more than its potential Conservative and Reform votes put together. 

Readers of the other three were more likely to back a right wing party than Starmer, but the Labour support was far stronger than you might suspect: 43% of those who cited the Express, 37% of Telegraph readers and 40% who turn to the Mail, for whatever reason. 

So much for Project Fear. Now the Mail must face up to five years of Project Keir.

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