Saturday, November 14, 2009

Regaining sympathy not the same as regaining trust

The Sun's quite disgraceful personal attacks on the Prime Minister over his letter to Jacqui Janes understandably swung some public sympathy behind him this week. But neither that nor the Glasgow North East by-election result means he is necessarily "safe." Here's today's Journal column.

Six weeks ago, The Sun newspaper torpedoed Gordon Brown's hopes of a party conference uplift by announcing on the evening of his keynote speech that it would be backing the Tories at the next general election.

At the time, I was among those who sought to downplay the significance of this, arguing on these pages that it was no more than a right-wing newspaper returning to its natural ideological home.

But if I’m honest, I was swimming against the tide on this. Most of the media seem to take The Sun’s own estimation of itself as the paper ‘wot won’ every election since the 1960s completely at face value.

Hence the paper’s switch after 12 years of loyal support for New Labour was reported as a political event of huge symbolic importance which drove yet another nail in the government’s coffin.

Perhaps, though, they were right. We have seen over the past week just what a dangerous opponent The Sun can be when it has it in mind to ‘go for’ a particular politician.

It used an error-strewn handwritten letter he wrote to grieving mum Jacqui Janes expressing his condolences at the loss of her son in Afghanistan to mount a highly personal attack on the Prime Minister.

It’s all becoming very reminiscent of the latter days of John Major – another well-intentioned PM who seemingly could do nothing right and who incurred the wrath of a certain red-top tabloid as a consequence.

Who could forget the Sun editor on Black Wednesday who promised to take two large buckets of something unmentionable and empty them all over poor old Mr Major’s head?

But if that at least had the merit of humour, on this occasion the paper appears to have over-reached itself.

As the sheer ferocity of its attack became clear, the public’s sympathy seems for once to have swung towards Mr Brown.

Ironically, had the paper not previously announced its intention to support the Conservatives, its reporting of the whole episode might have had a greater political impact.

But as Alastair Campbell rightly pointed out: “Precisely because they made such a splash with the switch to the Tories, the wider public now know more than ever that their coverage is politically driven and totally biased against Brown.”

The Sun also has something of a credibility gap with some sections of the public on issues such as these – as David Higgerson, a former Journal political correspondent now plying his trade on Merseyside, was not slow to point out.

“Nobody in Liverpool needs reminding about the sick irony involved when The Sun decides to have a pop at somebody for being insensitive,” he wrote on his blog.

As it is, a difficult week for Mr Brown has ended on a triumphant note with Labour’s unexpectedly comfortable victory in the Glasgow North-East by-election caused by the defenestration of Mr Speaker Martin over his handling of the expenses affair.

It did not take long for the Prime Minister’s loyal ally, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, to claim the party’s thumping 8,111 majority over the SNP as “an endorsement of Gordon Brown and what he is trying to do.”

But is it? Earlier this week, South Shields MP David Miliband’s decision to turn down the chance to become EU Foreign Minister led to more speculation that he could yet take as Labour leader before the next election.

A defeat for Labour in Glasgow North-East on Thursday might have raised that speculation to fever pitch.

As it is, the consensus among political commentators last night was that the result will make Mr Brown “safe” from any further attempts to unseat him – but I’m not at all sure they’re right.

The Prime Minister may have garnered some public sympathy this week. But regaining the public’s sympathy is a long way from regaining its trust.

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Pete said...

It seems to me that the Conservatives are much more dependent on public perceptions of Cameron than Labour is on those of Brown - who after all has been gaff-prone, presentationally inept and subject to headline criticism in the press for (seemingly) ever. If that is indeed so - and absent Cameron, for what would Conservative voters be voting? - then his Cast-Iron promise retraction may be the most significant event of the past few days. One more like that in the next couple of weeks and I reckon he, and therefore the Conservatives, are on a slide from which there is no way back. He needs trust more than Brown, loose that and he's lost everything.

Robert said...

The fact is Labour has had 13 years, and have proved on thing for sure, they are useless, and sadly so are the Tories,. but one of these two parties must win will it be labour who have put us into the biggest down turn in history, or will it be the Tories who started it all.

I say Vote BNP and sod the lot of them, thats the British Nutty party not the other.