Are Boris Johnson's press loyalists capable of moving on?
Newspapers editors’ judgement proved to be spectacularly wrong and out-of-touch about Boris Johnson’s unpopular leadership. Can they be trusted as a guide for what happens next in the race to succeed him?
The loyal Boris Johnson press stayed loyal to the end and beyond and continue to trumpet his greatness beyond the political grave.
For Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, Johnson’s “abundant unforced errors” were insignificant compared with his four triumphs – his 80-seat electoral victory, getting Brexit done, world-class vaccines and whole-hearted support for Ukraine.
Alister Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, saluted Johnson as one of the UK’s most consequential prime ministers despite his “atrocious, delusional and indefensible” subsequent performance.
The Daily Mail bewailed Boris being “cast out by a party in the grip of collective hysteria. Keir Starmer is cock-a-hoop. Corks are popping in Brussels — and Moscow. And the Tories don’t have a clue who should replace him.”
During Johnson’s premiership, all three newspapers proved their judgement to be spectacularly wrong and out of touch not just with the Ministers who defenestrated Johnson but the majority of the general public who had long decided his behaviour was no longer amusing.
Despite their best efforts they were unable to shore up support for their man and it was the speed of Twitter and live broadcasting that led to the tidal wave of resignations that proved unsustainable.
Johnson even included a sentence blaming Twitter for his demise in his resignation speech before wisely deleting the reference.
The fatal morning also revealed how powerful a radio programme such as Radio 4’s Today can be in proving the killer blow from Lord McDonald, totally undermining the Johnson defence on the pinching deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, followed by the funeral bell toll of resignations.
How now will the main right-wing newspapers rise to their next big challenge — helping to whittle down an initial dozen wannabes to two by the end of next week and then on to the summer campaign before Conservative Party members?
A select readership
The days have long gone since newspapers could realistically claim they were responsible for the election of a particular government. Apart from falling print numbers, and declining influence amid a crowded internet, it was always more about nudging an existing trend or providing a megaphone effect for existing prejudices.
But this is a very specialist election where the right-wing press could have an impact on an electoral college of around 200,000.
They are predominantly white, middle class and middle-aged at best, with a median age of around 60.
Although up-to-date numbers are hard to come by, it is safe to predict that in the ranks of such a party there will be a disproportionate number still buying a newspaper rather than grazing the internet online.
Unsurprisingly the paper of choice in such an electorate by a big margin is almost certainly the Daily Telegraph, followed by the Daily Mail and The Times, with the Daily Express hanging on. In this demographic The Sun counts for very little.
It’s an odd electoral system — in effect two almost unrelated elections throwing up different odds and different favourites.
The favourite among the 358 Conservative MPs, survivors of the 365 elected in 2019, is probably former Chancellor Rishi Sunak. This is despite the fact that he was the one who struck the first blow against Johnson and in contrast to all the other candidates is offering no immediate tax cuts.
According to The Times, the views of the members are very different with former international development secretary Penny Mordaunt topping a Conservative Home poll. Apparent outsider Kemi Badenoch comes in second, meanwhile, ahead of Sunak and another supposed outsider, attorney general Suella Braverman.
Things will get even more vicious
The low tax Daily Mail is starting to let its preferences show with extensive coverage of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s claim to be “the unity candidate” with the True Blue agenda amid warnings that those involved should “forget Rishi’s jam tomorrow” and listen instead to the Truss plea to help voters now.
There was also the claim that Sunak’s people may have been involved in a Dominic Cummings “toxic smear” campaign against the former Chancellor’s rivals.
Another day and another splash promoting the Truss view that unless the Tory Right on the Thatcherite wing of the party unites behind her, Rishi Sunak will get the keys to 10 Downing Street on a plate.
The Daily Telegraph approach is more nuanced, although there has been plenty of space for a look backwards. A piece by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Johnson a giant on the world stage and that the animus against him had been driven in large part “by envy and Remainer bile”.
However, the main worries of the Torygraph at the moment are that, in such a large field, unrealistic promises will be made by candidates who are straining just to be heard. Just as worrying as there being an early coronation with the leading candidate becoming PM, because then party members would be cut out of a final vote.
“The members would see this as a betrayal and all the candidates should pledge they will not allow such an eventuality to happen,” the paper says.
The paper’s former editor and Thatcher biographer Lord Charles Moore has noticed that Penny Mordaunt is popular with Party members and has a splutter or two in his Telegraph Notebook about her “wokery.” Lord Moore really doesn’t like her distaste for films that promote the idea that the past was so much better than the future, such as David Lean films, Great Expectations and Lawrence of Arabia.
The Times, as you would expect, takes a more judicious approach and argues that a discredited Prime Minister should not be allowed to use his final weeks in office for crony appointments such as making controversial former head of the Metropolitan Police Lord Hogan-Howe director-general of the National Crime Agency.
The same applies to peerages for cronies in a resignation honours list.
“Mr Johnson has done enough damage to the standing of Britain’s institutions without dragging them into further disrepute,” The Times argues.
A summer devoted to the Conservative leadership campaign will, at least, give a breathing space to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, newly cleared of any wrongdoing involving a beer and takeaway curry in Durham Miners Hall, and whose party is 15% ahead of the Conservatives in the latest opinion polls.
Once the right-wing press have got their new leader they will turn their guns on the Labour leader and — for them — two inviting targets.
As the blue-on-blue battle raged, Starmer committed a Labour government to end non-dom status, which will infuriate the non-dom right-wing newspaper proprietors, and end charitable status for public schools.
British media politics could be about to get even more vicious whoever wins the Conservative leadership election.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays.