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Boris, the Tory press, and a difficult editorial challenge

03 Oct 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Boris, the Tory press, and a difficult editorial challenge

If Brexit negotiations continue to go badly and a solution to the Irish border issue remains elusive, what on earth will the Brexit cheerleading newspapers tell their readers, asks Ray Snoddy

Usually nothing too much should be read into annual party conferences – except perhaps for symbolism. The faithful work themselves up into a temporary lather and then everybody goes home.

But this time there was Boris Johnson surrounded by the scrum of media, the star attraction, making the bid for the Conservative leadership - which of course he denied was a leadership bid at all.

There he was milking the applause at the “fringe” meeting attended by more than 1,000 supporters, deploying tabloid alliteration to Chuck Chequers. And how they loved it.

The British Trump was playing out his Churchillian destiny and was on his way to seize his kingdom.

By way of contrast, if any were needed, Theresa May looked grey and wan and could only manage a few mild slaps for her tormentor. Boris always puts on a good show. She was a bit cross at some of his ideas, oh and by the way he was prepared to betray the people of Northern Ireland and break up the United Kingdom.

It appeared thin gruel compared to the red meat on offer from Boris.

In ancient times the arrival of a comet was believed to be a harbinger of terrible things, or at the very least the fall of a powerful leader.

Somehow Prime Minister May managed to survive last year’s debacle as the fall of the Tory backdrop letters one by one coincided perfectly with the gradual loss of her voice. If there was ever an omen...

This time surely the arrival of comet Boris would eclipse the rather dull Prime Minister and her Brexit plan many Conservatives do not like and which has anyway been rejected by Brussels.

And then something unexpected happened - The Coronation of Boris by the Tory press failed to materialise.

Who knows how the Paul Dacre Daily Mail would have reacted but the Geordie Greig Daily Mail was having little truck with Boris. In an unambiguous front page comment Johnson was accused of being “deeply disloyal and profoundly unrealistic.”

He had widened the party’s divisions and the only beneficiary would be Jeremy Corbyn.

“If Mr Johnson’s personal ambitions help Labour’s half-baked Marxists to power, neither his party nor the country will ever forgive him.”

Other papers ducked for cover by concentrating on other stories such as The Sun’s splash on the fact that petrol duty is to be frozen again.

Others looked forward to the Prime Minister’s insistence that Britain’s best days lie ahead.

The only real comfort for Johnson came in the Daily Telegraph which pays him more than £260,000 a year as a columnist and provider of splashes.

The paper claimed that senior Tories were now pressing May's hand to set out a timetable for her departure. If the press reaction is any guide, the high water mark of Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions may have been reached and the fear of Corbyn could lead to a circling of the wagons around her.

Never mind Johnson’s disloyalty to people and ideas, his burqa views and his ignorance of the Irish border question (matched only by that of Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley).

His posing in a field of wheat in mockery of the Prime Minister - who unwisely elevated him to the Foreign Office for a cheap pre-conference photo-opportunity - was lapped up by the newspapers and exposed, as few other things could, his childish shallowness.

There is an old joke about the press separating the wheat from the chaff and deciding to print the chaff. They had no problems locating the chaff this time.

For good measure another would be successor to May impaled himself on an unforgiving media.

Can anyone take Jeremy Hunt seriously ever again as even Foreign Secretary, never mind Conservative leader, after likening membership of the EU to being in a Soviet prison. Too many people have actually been in a Soviet, or Eastern European communist prison - or had parents who were - for such a remark to be anything other than the more flagrant of politically inept utterances.

The party conference season will serve as just a warm up for what looks like being six months of endless political turmoil even if, as seems likely, a Conservative leadership contest or even a general election will be avoided - for fear of worse.

If the Brexit negotiations continue to go badly and the search for a practical solution to the Irish border issue remains elusive, what on earth will the Brexit cheerleading newspapers tell their readers.

The “Time To Believe In Brexit” Daily Express will plough on regardless but the Sun and the Daily Mail face a tricky problem.

What if it becomes crystal clear that they tried to persuade their readers to vote against not just their interests but those of their children and grandchildren?

They were happy to assure their readers that there would be nothing easier than agreeing trade deals with the rest of the world and that the Germans would still want to sell their cars in the UK.

Any note of gloom was denounced as “scaremongering by Remoaners” even though many of the scares - albeit with a delay - are now coming to pass.

Difficult to imagine what they will say if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal and production lines grind to a halt.

Then of course the Brexit press will blame the EU, quite forgetting it was the UK which voted to leave or that the EU was clear from the outset that it would not compromise on guiding principles such as freedom of movement of people, goods and services.

The next six months will pose a particular challenge for the BBC which many believe - not just Lord Adonis - had editorially sidelined the case for “a People’s Vote” in preference for Remain or various shades of Brexit.

As polls start to show a majority for a vote on the terms and even showing regret for the original Brexit decision, the BBC is showing some signs of improvement but has a long way to go before its coverage can be called either fair or completely comprehensive.

The BBC cupcake challenge at the Conservative Party conference said it all.

Delegates could choose the cupcake of their choice - representing the Brexit variants such as Chequers, Norwegian or Canadian.

A Tory delegate asked where was the Remain and the People’s Vote cupcakes.

There was a moment of embarrassed silence and the answer came there none.

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27 May 2020 

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