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Right-wing press scores an own goal

Peter Preston, The Guardian, 17th October 2005

The real question isn't the one about drugs in days past that Andrew Rawnsley put to David Cameron on a Blackpool platform. Nor is it, for the most part, a question of a crusading press scenting cover-up, scoop, downfall. No: the problem is far more complex and comedic than that. Here are the only residual Tory papers that matter, helping choose the only prospective Tory leader most of them think has a chance. Do they shoot him, and themselves, in the foot?

Before the Blackpool conference, keen readers would have put the Telegraph, Times, Express and Sun as David Davis backers. Only the Mail backed Kenneth Clarke. David Cameron was too young, too vague, too uncertain.

One conference speech changed all that. Davis, though most of his MPs seemed to be staying loyal, was damaged goods. Irwin Stelzer (in loco Rupert Murdoch, who promptly arrived in London) hailed Cameron as saviour. The Telegraph began to shift ground. The Mail conceded that Cameron 'has the magic touch'.

So what's the difficulty, with the two MPs' votes this week that will knock the choice down to two? That should mean Davis versus Cameron on all the week's press soundings around Westminster, with Fox gone on Tuesday and Clarke scratched 48 hours later. Pride and (arguable) principle, though, keep getting in the way.

The Telegraph, after a Friday wobble about Cameron's lack of a 'tough' policy on cannabis, had tottered behind the new boy yesterday. Its last editor, Charles Moore, thought Tories' real problem was 'their addiction to past quarrels'. His successor's main editorial detailed 'questions that should not be asked' - and took David Davis to damaging task for not shutting up about it. A 'ridiculous' British press, said the Telegraph, was 'having one of its periodical fits of morality'.

But hang on ... what 'British press' was holding a ridiculous trial here? Not the Guardian, Independent, FT, Mirror or any other non-Tory papers. Not the Sun or Times either. What the Telegraph was really talking about was Associated Newspapers and its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre.

On Friday morning, far from soft-pedalling, Dacre had cleared his entire Mail leader page for a vintage dissertation about 'the question that must be answered' - full of 'whispers abounding ... that some in [Cameron's] inner circle had been habitual drug users'. A few hours later, as Associated's Evening Standard came on sale, we discovered that 'a close relative' and honorary inner circle member was in at least part of the frame.

Cameron issued a rather agonised statement acknowledging as much. The Mail demanded he be 'open and frank'. David Davis used those precise two words in a television interview. Cameron wrote an article for the Mail defending his privacy, but attacking any suspicion that he was tolerant on drugs. And the Tory party held its breath.

Labour and Lib Dems alike have lately concluded that Davis would be their absolute best, most desirable bet for Tory leader (and even the Mail basically wrote him off after Blackpool). But now, digging, asking impertinent questions, the Mail group and anyone else who wants to play has a chance of making Davis the new Michael Howard - and then the 'past quarrels' within the Carlton Club circle Charles Moore knows well will become Press Club ructions to remember.

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