Why did the Daily Mail support Johnson long after other press allies turned their backs?

Why did the Daily Mail support Johnson long after other press allies turned their backs?

Why did the Daily Mail support Johnson long after other press allies turned their backs?

Why did the Daily Mail support Johnson long after other press allies turned their backs?

A newspaper that styles itself as a bastion of middle England morality should have been the first to ask hard questions of a doomed leader

After Boris Johnson was elected to “get Brexit done” with a huge 80-seat majority, the rightwing press backed their man through scandals over Covid, NHS contracts, sleaze, Partygate and more, rebuking the naysayers in the party and beyond. The Daily Mail was particularly defensive, turning its fury on “a narcissistic rabble of Tory MPs trying to topple a PM who’s leading us out of Covid” when the first rumblings over Downing Street parties prompted an outburst in parliament from David Davis in January.

By the time of the humiliating collapse of Johnson’s leadership this week, the support of the other papers had dried up. As far back as February, the Telegraph reported the scathing attack on Johnson by John Major, who accused the prime minister of eroding public trust in British democracy, showing contempt for ministerial standards, damaging the UK’s international reputation and attacking civil rights.

By the time of the humiliating collapse of Johnson’s leadership this week, the support of the other papers had dried up. As far back as February, the Telegraph reported the scathing attack on Johnson by John Major, who accused the prime minister of eroding public trust in British democracy, showing contempt for ministerial standards, damaging the UK’s international reputation and attacking civil rights.

By the time of the humiliating collapse of Johnson’s leadership this week, the support of the other papers had dried up. As far back as February, the Telegraph reported the scathing attack on Johnson by John Major, who accused the prime minister of eroding public trust in British democracy, showing contempt for ministerial standards, damaging the UK’s international reputation and attacking civil rights.

The Murdoch-owned Sun remained largely loyal, particularly over a party that involved senior members of its own staff, but it could not ignore a cost of living crisis that was hurting constituents in many newly Conservative “red wall” seats. Last week, it was a Sun political reporter – Noa Hoffman – who broke the story that prompted Tory deputy whip Chris Pincher to resign, triggering Johnson’s downfall.

The Murdoch papers have always backed political winners – and turned savagely on losers. And two weeks into the latest sleaze scandal, Johnson was no longer looking quite so unassailable. But far more surprising has been the continued support, even into this week, of the Mail.

Yes, as the Pincher scandal started to engulf him last weekend, the Mail on Sunday splashed with the story that the PM knew about the Pincher’s proclivities two years ago and promoted him nonetheless. But by Monday, the daily paper seemed slightly horrified by its Sunday sister’s act of self sabotage and declared: “Boris Johnson is still the best man to lead Britain.”

The lead comment seemed so out of keeping with the view not only from inside his own party but also public opinion that journalist Tim Walker tweeted: “Not since its ‘hurrah for the Blackshirts’ headline has the DM misjudged things so badly.”

The change of tone between weekend and weekday editions was so marked that it was reminiscent of the internecine strife at the Mail group before Paul Dacre finally removed Geordie Greig, who had tried to “detoxify” the Mail brand. Greig left the group last November to make way for an acolyte of Dacre’s, Ted Verity.

And the support, however watered down, only continued. Rather than the sort of splash headlines calling for heads to roll that are typical when the Mail’s enemies in the judiciary or Labour party do something wrong, Wednesday’s edition compared “Boris” to a baby pig and asked if he could “wriggle” his way out of a situation in which he’d been accused of lying to his parliamentary colleagues and the people.

Readers had to get past a double-page advert for the Mail’s own app, a spread of Wimbledon coverage and story about the “buccaneering” new chancellor Nadhim Zahawi before discovering any detail about the momentous resignations of Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak.

Even this morning, as the Mail landed on doormats only hours before a new slew of resignations finally forced Johnson’s hand, the paper ran a statesman-like picture of him on the front page with the headline “Boris stares down the mutiny”, with further prominent mention of his “mandate from 14m voters”.

Even Mail insiders have questioned why the paper continued to support a man who goes against what it promotes as its great traditions. Yes, Johnson has delivered a tick list of causes dear to Dacre’s heart. Get Brexit done? Tick. Bash the BBC? Tick. Cut the civil service down to size? Tick. Immigration? Not only tick but send the problem to Rwanda.

But the gulf between Johnson’s behaviour and the sort of morality that the paper likes to say it has, in speaking for middle England, is stark. At a 125th birthday party for 800 people in May, the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, lauded its tradition of exposing “incompetent and immoral” politicians. All newspapers, he said, “must not be afraid to call out the charlatans”.

Standing up for decency and family values as well as a prime minister who does neither is a bad look for a newspaper that likes to think of itself as the minister for morality.

To find an explanation, all roads, as ever, lead back to Dacre himself. For all his moralising, he is defined more than anything by an instinct to double down when people call him out for losing the plot. He did it in 2016 when he described the three judges who he deemed were wrecking Brexit as “enemies of the people” – a notorious front page headline that he has repeatedly defended.

There is a culture of stubbornness and superiority around Dacre that says, if we keep shouting loud enough we can never be wrong and don’t need to listen to critics – we’re doing it our own way. In that respect he is not unlike a certain outgoing prime minister.

Which leads us to the elephant perhaps soon to enter the room. Johnson has made no secret of his desire to promote Paul Dacre personally, first with a botched attempt to make him the head of Ofcom. He is also rumoured to want to give Dacre a peerage. As it turns out, even the mighty Mail was unable to prevent such an elevation being part of another controversial tradition in British politics: the prime minister’s resignation honours.

 

Jane Martinson is a Guardian columnist

A newspaper that styles itself as a bastion of middle England morality should have been the first to ask hard questions of a doomed leader After Boris Johnson was elected to “get Brexit done” with a huge 80-seat majority, the rightwing press backed their man through scandals over Covid, […]

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