Behold, the great tabloid political plot

Snoddy: Behold, the great tabloid political plot

Tabloids’ influence may be waning, but their ability to create a sophisticated political plot remains. Expect more this year.

The political influence of national newspapers, and the right-wing tabloids in particular, has usually been exaggerated. It really wasn’t “The Sun wot won it”, although the papers can reflect and perhaps even intensify an existing public mood.

Newspapers’ modest influence on election results has probably declined further in recent years with the fall in print circulations.

But there is one arena where the tabloids still reign supreme — the political plot and the newly fashionable (and frequent) attempts to remove Conservative leaders without the need for a general election.

Plots are floated in the tabloid pages, fizz like a firework and either take off or fizzle out.

A failed Johnson plot

Earlier this month, there was a rather limp tabloid plot to get Boris Johnson back to replace Rishi Sunak before the next general election.

That kite didn’t fly and there was agreement from The Mail on Sunday and The Times that the most useful deployment of Johnson would be to have him campaign alongside Sunak, with concentration on the red wall seats in the north of England that turned Tory last time.

Even by remarkable contemporary standards, it has been a bad couple of weeks for Sunak.

The polls had refused to move in the Conservatives’ favour following a “giveaway” budget from Jeremy Hunt.

Next up, deputy chairman Lee Anderson defects to the Reform Party, while the Conservatives’ largest donor, Frank Hester, was quoted as saying Labour politician Diane Abbott made him hate all black women and that someone should shoot her.

A coronation of sorts

It is difficult to imagine more fertile ground for a tabloid plot against the prime minister.

Last Saturday, there it was in all its glory — in the Daily Mail, naturally.

“Plot to crown Mordaunt as PM,” ran the headline over the piece, which said that MPs on the right of the party had held talks about uniting behind Penny Mordaunt to replace Sunak.

The plot would involve a crowning of Mordaunt as the new leader in a “coronation” if Sunak faced a confidence vote in the coming weeks.

Ah, a coronation. That’s the ticket.

Political anoraks will remember that Mordaunt lost out to both Sunak and Liz Truss at the hands of Tory members. But then came King Charles III’s coronation, during which Mordaunt carried a 3.6kg sword with aplomb, and her chances of becoming the next Conservative leader — and with it the keys to Downing Street — soared.

As the Mail reported, Mordaunt now had a better chance of beating Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer than Sunak by a net margin of plus seven points.

A major plot was off and running.

Conservative crisis

This sense of crisis was amplified by a Mail on Sunday exclusive when it revealed private polling on behalf of business organisations predicting that the Conservatives were heading for the worst defeat in their history.

The Sunday Times reported on what was arguably Sunak’s worst week in office under the headline: “Melting point.” At the same time, it claimed that the party was falling under Mordaunt’s spell.

There was doubt, though, whether the coronation plot was being put about by Mordaunt’s friends or by enemies seeking to undermine her.

This is the mark of a really sophisticated tabloid plot — motives are unclear and everything can be denied.

The ultimate outcome is far from clear yet, but for the tabloids it is always a win-win situation.

Plot against the plot

They can leap to the defence of the beleaguered prime minister, who is at least partly beleaguered because of their activities, and then we are into phase two.

Indeed, the Daily Mail on Monday reported that Sunak “will launch a political fight-back” to convince plotting Tory MPs that the economy will “bounce back” under his leadership.

The Sun joined the case for the defence by arguing that some Tory MPs have “taken leave of their senses” and that voters would be horror-struck to have a fourth Tory prime minister installed in five years.

Its political commentator Trevor Kavanagh was even more forthright, saying that the Tories have morphed into a “headless-chicken version of the Monster Raving Loonies”.

But maybe for the first time ever, there was real wisdom from another Sun columnist, the usually underestimated Julia Hartley-Brewer, who argued: “If they can’t unite on policies that will drag Britain out of the doldrums and deliver the growth and opportunity we deserve, then it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in No.10 this week or next.”

More intrigue to come

Wise words, but it is likely that the tabloid plot to crown Mordaunt has not yet run its course.

It can also be predicted with absolute certainly that there will be another tabloid plot, with or without coronations or heavy swords, on 3 May — the day after what even the Conservatives fear would be a drubbing in the local elections.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who knows a thing or two about newspaper political plots, is throwing up a smokescreen for now, writing instead about how his “British-built robot lawnmower makes me feel a surging hope for humanity”.

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 — read his column here.

Media Jobs