Rishi Sunak is discovering that hell hath no fury like the Daily Mail scorned, as the rightwing newspaper dedicates itself to destroying the former chancellor’s bid to be Tory leader.
In the week since Boris Johnson was deposed, the newspaper has remained steadfastly loyal to the outgoing prime minister – and steadfastly opposed to those such as Sunak who helped to force him out of office.
Friday’s front page asked the question “What the hell have they done?” and blamed a party “in the grip of collective hysteria” for forcing a leadership election. The following day the 1.4 million people who buy the Mail’s Saturday print edition were informed that the MPs who had deposed Johnson – such as Sunak – were “Tory traitors” who had opened the door to Keir Starmer entering Downing Street as leader of “a coalition of chaos”.
The Daily Mail’s editorial line fits with the message pushed by Johnson’s allies, who blame Sunak for bringing down the prime minister and have committed themselves to pushing an “anyone but Rishi” candidate.
Even in an age when Twitter drives much of the day-to-day discussion in Westminster, the print editions of a handful of newspapers – and their proprietors – still hold substantial power over internal Conservative politics.
Individuals who have worked in the Johnson administration describe a fixation on the print editions of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in morning Downing Street meetings, with the prime minister often raising concerns about specific stories.
As a result, Tory leadership candidates put high value on winning the official support of these titles. In part this is due to the hope that readers of the Telegraph, Times, Mail, Sun and Express may be in the pool of roughly 100,000 Tory members who will select the next prime minister.
But newspaper endorsements are also in part a self-fulfilling prophecy – a symbolic victory that is seen as giving momentum to a leadership campaign and making it easier for MPs and party members to come onboard with a candidate on course for victory.
The expectation among staff at the Mail is that it will formally back Liz Truss for leader, with journalists at the outlet told to avoid being overly critical of the foreign secretary. This would fit with Tuesday’s front-page story, which was headlined “Truss: back me or it’ll be Rishi”.
It consisted of an anonymous briefing from one of the foreign secretary’s supporters urging MPs to ensure Truss makes the final two – an article appeared targeted more at the Tory MPs voting in Wednesday’s leadership contest than the readers of the newspaper.
The strong support for Johnson could be jarring for some of the Daily Mail’s readers, because until last autumn, under the editorship of Geordie Greig, the newspaper was often critical of Johnson.
But since Greig was sacked and replaced with Ted Verity, the newspaper has become one of Johnson’s strongest supporters. Paul Dacre, the former editor, remains involved with the title amid speculation that Johnson has promised him a seat in the House of Lords after failing to get him the job of running the media regulator Ofcom.
Different titles serve different purposes. Several of the candidates have chosen to formally announce their campaigns in the Telegraph, still seen as the in-house outlet of the Tory party and which has campaigned for lower corporation taxes and against Sunak’s recent introduction of the health and social care levy. In an effort to head off this criticism, the former chancellor recently gave his first campaign interview to the paper, in which he pledged to run the economy like Margaret Thatcher did.
The Express, which despite its pro-Tory editorial line is edited by a lifelong Labour supporter, Gary Jones, has also used it front page to emphasise how allies of Johnson are promoting Truss in an attempt to stop Sunak.
As for the Sun and the Times, the Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets are known for liking to back winners and may be holding fire for now until a favoured candidate emerges. But with the contest rapidly narrowing, they may have to jump soon.
July 14, 2022 at 10:52AM Jim Waterson Media editor