As the Conservative party stares down the barrel of a likely general election defeat, it’s hardly surprising if it can’t work out what its future might look like. The weirder thing is that the Daily Mail can’t, either.
Never as slavishly loyal to the Tory establishment as its less attentive critics believe, the paper has always had a sharp vision of where the right is heading next – a vision influential enough on government policy for the last 13 years to matter to everyone, not just the party faithful. Today, the choices on the table seem reasonably clear.
Anticipating a Rishi Sunak defeat, it could cast its lot in with the hard right, and put its faith in the likes of Suella Braverman; or it could do its best to shore up the current government’s prospects, for fear of something even less popular. Instead, under editor Ted Verity, the Mail finds itself caught hopelessly in the middle – and many of its staff say privately that they find its strategy baffling. Always the self-declared voice of middle England, the Mail can no longer seriously claim to be even the voice of the people who work for it.
For a paper with a robust sense of its own omniscience and Tory influence, the last few weeks have been especially rough. A fortnight ago, a few days after a front page raised fears that pro-Palestinian protesters would foment a “riot at the Cenotaph”, a mob did indeed rush the police – but they were far-right counter-protesters who spoke of their admiration for Braverman. The following Monday, an approving splash told readers that “Suella comes out fighting”, adding that she had “defied critics who want her sacked”. Early that morning, Sunak did it anyway.
Braverman wrote Sunak a horrible letter, and her allies let it be known they were planning a “grid of shit” in a fairly implausible attempt to force him out. This, the paper’s editorial admitted, wasn’t a great idea. “Rebel Tories are once again talking of going to war against Downing Street,” it said. “Have they learned nothing from the pantomime of the past two years?”
Well, quite – but where is the pantomime being staged? Just this week, the Mail has hailed Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement for giving the “biggest tax cuts since the 1980s”, but warned: “Let’s hope it’s just the start!” The very next day, it splashed approvingly on “Suella leads Tory revolt on migration”, and added in an accompanying leader that “many are aghast that Rishi Sunak is still merely tinkering at the edges”.
It’s only a few weeks since the newspaper splashed on Nadine Dorries’ claims that a shadowy confidant of Sunak had murdered his ex-girlfriend’s brother’s rabbit; coverage of the Covid inquiry has seemed largely motivated by keeping Boris Johnson out of it. For many Mail staffers, the urgent question is not whether the Tory right is remotely serious about the next election, but why the Mail has allowed itself to be the vessel for their furies.
First, implacable support for Johnson throughout Partygate; then the endorsement of Liz Truss, and disgust that her removal “looks like nothing more than a coup by the Tories’ liberal wing”; then fantasies about a Johnson comeback, and a gigantic sulk as Sunak took over – with a warning that some “will find it hard to forgive Mr Sunak for wielding the knife against his former boss”. Johnson and Dorries are now star columnists, and the abandonment of Sunak only ever feels like one liberal prime ministerial gesture away.
“It’s felt pretty deranged for quite a long time,” one reporter said. “You know you’re not writing for the LRB [London Review of Books], and that’s fine, but you do expect to trust the judgment of the people in charge. There are a lot of talented people – but there have been so many calls now where we’re in a totally parallel reality.” Today, instead of a hotline to middle England, Verity’s Mail looks like the house publication of the Conservative party’s untrammelled id.
The explanation for how that happened begins two years ago, with the defenestration of Geordie Greig. Greig, who moved from the Mail on Sunday to succeed Paul Dacre as editor in 2018, had been given the task by owner Lord Rothermere of detoxifying the brand, with fewer front pages attacking migrants or calling judges ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Several observers say that Greig and Dacre loathed each other, to the extent that Greig is said to have spun on his heel when he saw Dacre in a lift outside the executive suite on the sixth floor of Northcliffe House and waited for the next one.
Greig’s Daily Mail was the first rightwing paper to subject Johnson to real scrutiny. Among other disobliging headlines, it broke the Wallpapergate story, about who paid for the lavish redecoration of No 11. Cuttings criticising Johnson over “sleaze” were proudly displayed across a double-page spread on 6 November 2021; two weeks later, Greig was gone.
Greig’s removal was baffling to the many who believed that his editorial strategy had Rothermere’s blessing. It seems not-coincidental that it happened just as Dacre withdrew from the running to be the new chair of Ofcom. Shortly afterwards, he was named as the Mail’s new publisher, with Verity, his deputy of old, becoming editor.
Who is ultimately responsible for the paper’s recent political direction is a black box; Rothermere and Verity are widely thought to be friendly with Johnson, while his backing for Dacre’s Ofcom bid appears to have softened a view of Johnson that Mail columnist Sarah Vine once characterised as an “instinctive dislike”. Most close observers hypothesise that Verity edits with a free hand, but that he understands why he was appointed – and, as one says, “a populist like Boris is much more in line with how he sees the world anyway. It was obvious immediately that we wouldn’t be going after him any more.” Another says: “I wouldn’t see it as ideological. It all stems from a love of Boris and Dorries.”
Still, few could have anticipated how brazen the reversal on Johnson would be, or how vastly Partygate would raise the stakes – despite how offensive the story was to many Mail readers’ sense of fair play. “We stuck with him long after even the Telegraph saw it couldn’t go on,” one insider says.
Now, with the Conservatives so far behind in the polls, the newspaper is attempting a spot of its hero’s beloved cakeism: fuelling the internecine psychodrama, even as it urges the protagonists to call it off. The cognitive dissonance is giving many in the ranks, and even some columnists, a headache. Verity is widely seen as a natural editor, decisive and instinctual. But that is no longer enough to blunt questions about the impact of his loyalties on a newspaper whose readers, a recent poll suggested, are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour than Conservative. The trouble is, everyone is scared to say so.
Readers, too, will have to rely on their own memories to put the puzzle together, rather than find an explanation in a newspaper where unhelpful past iterations of the editorial line are ignored with the same breeziness that Marvel movies discard plotlines deemed no longer canon. This is a dangerous strategy. At the Mail, it’s always year zero. But its audience has always had a firm grip on the idea that in the past, everything made a little more sense.
Archie Bland is the editor of the Guardian’s First Edition newsletter. He will be writing a new monthly column on media, culture and technology