Mail changes direction: So who are the saboteurs now?

PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 November 2018

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 18:  Geordie Greig attends the launch of

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 18: Geordie Greig attends the launch of "Fortnum & Mason: The Cook Book" by Tom Parker Bowles at Fortnum & Mason on October 18, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Fortnum and Mason)

2016 David M. Benett

The change of editor at the Daily Mail has been followed by a dramatic volte-face over Brexit, says Fleet Street watcher LIZ GERARD

Landmark birthdays are supposed to be days to remember. Paul Dacre will surely remember his latest one.

Last Wednesday, in common with the Prince of Wales, he reached his 70th. He would probably have approved of the happy family picture of the Waleses that occupied half the Daily Mail front page.

But the splash would have had him choking on his cake. For his protégé Theresa May had come back from the EU with some half-baked Brexit ‘deal’ that would leave the UK in the customs union for the foreseeable future, with no unilateral escape route, and no say in the rules. And ‘his’ paper was supporting it.

There was worse to come. On Thursday, the Mail was commending May’s determination in the face of rebellion from hard Brexiters; by Friday, those Tory MPs holding the line that Dacre had championed for two years had “lost the plot”.

The lexicon was familiar; traitors, saboteurs and wreckers were peacocking and preening. But the words used against Remoaners during Dacre’s reign were now being employed against “pure” Brexiters, the ones who want no single market, no customs union, even no deal – as so often advocated by Dacre.

Who was guilty of the bigger betrayal? The woman he had projected and protected through thick and, mostly, thin? Or the man who prised him from the chair he had occupied for a quarter of a century? As editor of the Mail on Sunday, Geordie Greig backed Remain in the referendum. When his appointment to the daily was announced in June, the big question was whether he would take that editorial stance with him. Dacre warned him not to, saying any move to reverse its support for Brexit would be editorial and commercial suicide.

Greig himself told staff not to expect any immediate change. But barely a week after he’d taken over, writers were reporting “a screeching handbrake turn”.

It may have felt like that at the paper’s Derry Street offices, but the change has actually been far more subtle and – thanks to the continued use of Dacrespeak – is perhaps imperceptible to readers.

The paper still apparently backs Brexit, and columnists still vilify “elite Remoaners”, although the term has all but disappeared from news stories and editorials. The possibilities that Brexit might not happen at all, or that there might be a People’s Vote, have been acknowledged – but not promoted or endorsed. That may come later, but for now Greig’s Mail is firmly behind May’s deal.

What, then, has changed? To quote from a recent leader article, Project Fear has become Project Reality. In November 2016, the Mail reported “It’s official: we will be £10bn a year richer after Brexit”, while an editorial celebrated “the fastest- growing economy in the developed world”. Today it is the slowest in the G7 and ranks 25th of the 28 EU countries.

The day after that bullish 2016 leader, the Mail’s splash was “Jaguar Brexit boost”, a story about the carmaker’s plan to create 10,000 UK jobs.

Two years on, its chief executive Ralf Speth is warning that “tens of thousands” of jobs are at risk and that “entire industries” could be destroyed by a hard Brexit.

The Dacre Mail had no fears of a 
hard Brexit, and dismissed a soft Brexit as no Brexit at all. The Irish border was a “footling” issue whose importance had been hugely exaggerated.

We had to be willing to walk away from talks with the EU; as May had said: “No deal is better than a bad deal”. The Greig Mail recognises that no-deal is a cliff edge.

To strengthen her resolve, the Dacre Mail ran front pages depicting May in combative poses with headlines such as ‘Theresa’s new free Britain’, ‘Steel of the new Iron Lady’, ‘Daggers drawn’, and, of course, ‘Crush the saboteurs’.

Chancellor Philip Hammond – aka “Spreadsheet Phil”, “Eeyore”, “Mr Gloomy” – was also a saboteur and should be sacked. But who should replace him?

According to an editorial in October last year, there were capable replacements in the wings: “Take Jacob Rees-Mogg – a committed Brexiteer, hugely popular among the Tory grassroots, whose fogeyish manner masks a formidable intellect and a firm grasp of economics.”

Last week Mogg featured in another leader column. This time as “a man who pretends to be the very model of courtesy and chivalry” who was actually a low-grade assassin, guilty of the “most distasteful attempt” to unsettle the prime minister. Meanwhile, the Chancellor is now approvingly described as “Phil-your-boots Hammond”.

And so the heroes and villains have become interchangeable. Apart from one.

Dacre and Greig may differ on many issues, but on one they are in harmony: dissent in the Tory ranks from either side of the Brexit fence must be snuffed out because kicking May out might let Corbyn in. And nothing is more important than stopping that.

As Hilaire Belloc cautioned: “Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.”

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