Tory press know influence is waning but tread careful line before election

<span>Clockwise from top left: Tuesday’s Daily Mail; the Sun in 1992; last week’s Farage-focused Daily Telegraph, Sun and Times.</span><span>Composite: Daily Mail/The Sun/The Daily Telegraph/The Times</span>
Clockwise from top left: Tuesday’s Daily Mail; the Sun in 1992; last week’s Farage-focused Daily Telegraph, Sun and Times.Composite: Daily Mail/The Sun/The Daily Telegraph/The Times

As circulations fade and alternative sources of news and commentary spread across the media universe, the impact of Conservative-aligned national newspapers on elections is declining. Gone are the days when the combined might of the Sun’s front page and the leader columns of the Times, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph could claim to sway floating voters, such as the stereotyped Mondeo Man or Worcester Woman, to put an X by the name of a Tory candidate. But if these once-mighty titles have lost some of their power, they remain highly influential. So while they may not directly persuade a newly minted “Whitby woman” how to vote on 4 July, they still shape arguments inside Westminster and among the membership of the political parties, feeding social media and setting the broadcasting news agenda.

Veteran political journalist Andrew Neil, now back inside the Times stable steering its radio listeners in the runup to polling day, has admitted that newspapers’ collective influence “is nothing like it used to be”. Speaking last week, he cited the damage once done to Labour by the “red tops”, with Sun headlines such as the famous 1992 screamer, “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”, and suggested that the digital pages, newsletters and podcasts put out by leading Tory titles have nothing like the same visceral impact. But Neil also argues that British newspapers retain greater muscle than those in the US and other European countries, where he said there are no truly nationwide news publications.

In July the established Tory press faces a dilemma, with higher stakes than usual. The future of the Conservative party arguably lies in its hands. The editors of the Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Sun, together with the Spectator magazine, must judge readers’ instincts and choose what weight to give the challenge of Nigel Farage and Reform, never mind responding to the moderate tone of Keir Starmer’s Labour party. The Daily Mail, like the Daily Telegraph, has already backed Rishi Sunak, but it has also given shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves unprecedented space to lay out her plans. “I’ll never play fast and loose with your money,” she told readers in May. Last week, most Tory titles also gave front-page coverage to the surprise announcement that Farage would stand for parliament. “Farage remains an electrifying figure,” Spectator editor Fraser Nelson told the Observer. “No paper has ever backed him, but look at his impact on the agenda over recent years.” The job of journalists of any political colour, Nelson added, is to scrutinise even those they support. So any criticism he makes of Sunak’s government should not be read as a change of allegiance. Nelson is also sceptical about the idea that the press can alter the outcome of an election. “Even in 1992, it was never ‘The Sun Wot Won It’,” he said, “The power of a newspaper to influence the public is vastly exaggerated,” he said. “At best we can hold a mirror up to public opinion.”

A honeymooning Rupert Murdoch, 93, is still thought likely to influence who his British newspapers, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun, will back, although he stepped down from the top of News Corp in favour of his son Lachlan last year. On Thursday, however, journalist Dan Wootton caused a stir when he posted on X suggesting that his former paper the Sun was “considering endorsing no party” this time, despite the fact it “has liked to shape UK politics in the past”. He claimed that the paper’s deputy editor, James Slack, who once worked for Boris Johnson in Downing Street, was “pushing for the Tories” while editor Victoria Newton’s heart was “with Labour”. According to Wootton, no choice was made by Lachlan Murdoch at an executive meeting in Australia last week. In Wootton’s forthright analysis, the paper ought to back Reform, to reject the failed aims of Brexit and the “wokery” of Labour. Certainly, the red top’s distaste for Starmer, who sanctioned court cases against tabloid journalists accused of hacking as director of public prosecutions, may have been watered down by Labour’s recent moves to back away from plans for new press controls. The party supported the government’s media bill, including the repeal of a measure to force more newspapers to pay the legal costs of those who sue them.

Wholehearted support of Sunak is proving tricky, with the prime minister’s claims last week that Labour would increase tax by £2,000 disappearing over the horizon almost as quickly as he did from Thursday’s D-day commemorations. While every other national newspaper led their front pages yesterday with the fallout from Sunak’s D-day debacle, the Mail and Telegraph went elsewhere for their splashes – to the search for TV doctor and columnist Michael Mosley, and the planned Tory policy to axe permanently stamp duty for first-time house buyers. As one former high-ranking newspaper executive said this weekend: “Why would these newspapers want to link their brand to one as unpopular as the current Conservative party? They are caught between a rock and a hard place.” The same experienced Fleet Street journalist added that while a newspaper’s decision to back Sunak may not change the minds of voters, “the very last people to have realised this are the press teams of the party leaders, partly because that is how they are judged by their bosses.”

If fewer people now buy print newspapers, many still receive their journalism via internet browsers and social media, so competing party attitudes to issues such as tax still penetrate the voting population, just as algorithms ensure those who already care about immigration are updated on rival policies.

So far into the campaign, the Telegraph’s tactic appears to be to “let many flowers bloom”, in the assessment of media expert Jane Martinson, author of the book, You May Never See Us Again, about the recent owners of the title, the Barclay brothers. Columnists are able to criticise Sunak and salute Reform in an attempt to appease readers disappointed by the paper’s endorsement of the Tory leadership. With no current clear ownership of a media group that includes the Spectator, its senior editors have more freedom to flex their muscles. Consequently, former diplomat Lord Frost, a chief negotiator for exiting the EU, and a member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, is allowed to call for the Conservatives to abandon all centrist strategies, while the paper has also launched a podcast it hopes will appeal to younger audiences and which secured the first campaign interview with Sunak. Called The Daily T, it is hosted by rightwinger Camilla Tominey and a “liberal media grandee”, Kamal Ahmed, a former news executive at the BBC and the Observer.

While the course struck by the Telegraph may look unsteady, Martinson thinks it has a crucial role: “Its really important function now is not necessarily helping to determine the outcome of the election, but deciding on the future leadership of the Conservative party.”