Can Tony Blair Bear to Dispense with the Sun's Support at the Next Election? for It Is Necessary Price of Taking on Murdoch
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
In a rather surreal way, the manner in which the government is choosing to present its "big picture" is taking up quite a large chunk of the canvas itself. How the big picture is presented has become the big picture. We read on the front pages that a party chair will soon be appointed to the cabinet with responsibility for presenting the government's case, that Harriet Harman addressed a Welfare Roadshow (that was the story, not what she said at the event) and that Tony Blair's relationship with Rupert Murdoch is being called into question.
I had only just recovered from the Jack Straw episode. For two days towards the end of last month I heard and read about how Straw was going to "relaunch" the government. As one who did not suffer from "departmentalitis", Straw was to rise above the mundane minutiae of policy and give fresh impetus to the government. He gave the speech on a Friday night. I switched on the Nine o'Clock News seeking enlightenment. Not a word. The Saturday papers thudded on to the doormat. No space. I discovered why, when I read it.
The picture Straw painted was so big it was of no interest. But I suppose he had served his purpose. News that the government was focusing on the "big picture" had run for days. It did not matter greatly that when the moment came for the speech, the story had moved on. Or at least it had moved on to the importance of a cabinet minister exclusively concentrating on the "big picture". Perhaps, like the invisible, inaudible speech, there will be no such appointment.
It is not surprising, in a government where so much importance is attached to presentation, that Rupert Murdoch's support is valued. Nor should it be underestimated. The acquiescence of the Murdoch press during Blair's opposition years was an important factor in his success. The Sun may have endorsed Labour only once the election campaign had begun (and the Sunday Times supported the Conservatives, while the Times bizarrely advocated a vote for the nearest Eurosceptic), but its sympathetic reporting from early on in Blair's leadership helped to set a tone for others.
Blair was quite right to fly to Australia at the invitation of Murdoch in July 1995. He was only with the press baron for one evening, but it was time well spent. The Sun cooed more enthusiastically from that moment. I travelled with Blair and Alastair Campbell, and they had one objective in mind: to ensure Blair was not subjected to the relentless vilification that helped to destroy Neil Kinnock. I am convinced no formal deal was agreed during the visit, but in interviews in Australia Blair offered vague reassurance that Murdoch had nothing to fear from Labour's policies. In opposition the support of the Sun was a triumph for Blair and Campbell.
It is also worth stating what might happen if the love affair were to draw to a close. Blair and the rest of the government would be assaulted on a near-daily basis. Conceivably William Hague would become a new hero, the saviour of Britain and the pound. …