Politics 23 October 2018 | 12:31

The ‘Daily Mail’ is transforming its tone on Brexit

23 October 2018 12:31

Media stories are usually dull fare for anyone outside the journalistic village. But there are very occasional exceptions, one of which is today’s Daily Mail editorial on Brexit.

Headlined ‘Saboteurs endangering our nation’, the leading article takes ferocious aim at the hard Brexiteers and roundly condemns the ‘griping, self-promotion and peacocking across the political stage by Tory MPs determined to undermine their leader.’

The editorial goes on to savage the plotting against Theresa May and the horrendous language used by anonymous sources over the weekend to attack her: ‘The arch-Brexiteers fondly imagine that one of their poster boys, Boris Johnson or David Davis, might win [a leadership contest]. But what then? With just a few months to go to Brexit, what’s their plan? They speak of a Canada-style agreement, but that doesn’t solve the Irish border question and would throw a spanner in the engine of our economy. Then there is the no-deal option, which would involve a hard border around the UK. We may cope, of course, but it would lead to massive disruption and uncertainty for business as Britain reverted to World Trade Organisation tariffs.’

The Chequers deal is imperfect, the Mail concedes – but it is the only vaguely-viable proposal on the table. If the Tory in-fighting continues, the newspaper concludes, there is a clear and present danger of a Corbyn government that would be anathema to its readers: ‘So of the saboteurs who would take us to the edge of the abyss, this paper asks: Are you really prepared to sacrifice the nation’s fortune on the altar of your own egos?’

Why does this matter? The clue is in the headline. In April last year, the Mail – still under the editorship of Paul Dacre – hailed Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election on its front page with the words ‘CRUSH  THE SABOTEURS’. It congratulated the Prime Minister on seizing the opportunity to silence those arguing for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all – by seeking a landslide victory and massive Commons mandate. As we now know, that strategy did not go to plan.

The Dacre-edited Mail was famous for its commercial success, journalistic resourcefulness – and brutality. The judges who ruled that parliamentary consent was required for the Government to trigger the Brexit process were ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’. The 11 Tory MPs who voted for a final say on the deal were pictured on the front page above the menacing headline: ‘PROUD OF YOURSELVES?’ The Lords were labelled the ‘HOUSE OF UNELECTED WRECKERS’. The word ‘traitors’ was routinely applied to politicians and public figures who urged caution, moderation or compromise in the march towards Brexit.

When Geordie Greig, former editor of the Tatler, Evening Standard and Mail on Sunday, took hold of the reins of the Daily Mail last month, some of his fellow Remainers hoped that he would force a dramatic 180-degree turn upon the paper. This was never going to happen. Support for Brexit is now part of the Mail’s DNA. More to the point, a newspaper cannot execute a complete and abrupt U-turn on such a fundamental issue and retain journalistic and commercial credibility.

What Greig has done is more subtle. He has respected the Mail’s support for Brexit but transformed its tone. No more seething fury at those who dare to ask questions, explore problems and interrogate the practicality of the UK’s departure from the EU. Today’s editorial marks a further shift: the Mail is now aiming its criticism squarely at the same hard Brexiteers who, only a few weeks ago, regarded the paper as its staunchest ally.

Does this mean that the PM will now survive and that a compromise is bound to be struck with Brussels? By no means. But the Mail is still a hugely influential newspaper that – even as the power of the print press declines in aggregate – retains a tremendous grip on the minds of the political and media class, and a very large readership (in print and, par excellence, online). Its shifts in opinion and conduct are monitored very closely at Westminster and beyond – even (or perhaps especially) by those who claim to despise it.

What Greig has done is to draw a clear line in the sand and to distinguish his Mail dramatically from Dacre’s. The heroes of its Brexit narrative have become the villains. Who, indeed, are the saboteurs now?