Starmer or Sunak? Rupert Murdoch might just sit this one out

Word spread quickly around Westminster that Sir Keir Starmer was clearly in the ascendant by being invited to sit with Rupert Murdoch on his sofa at the mogul’s midsummer party (ES Composite)
Word spread quickly around Westminster that Sir Keir Starmer was clearly in the ascendant by being invited to sit with Rupert Murdoch on his sofa at the mogul’s midsummer party (ES Composite)

The jostling is well under way.

There’s a general election coming and both main parties are desperately trying to impress media owners and editors.

Word spread quickly around Westminster that Sir Keir Starmer was clearly in the ascendant by being invited to sit with Rupert Murdoch on his sofa at the mogul’s midsummer party. Seriously.

To be fair, other senior political figures also had a spell with the 92-year old magnate at the Spencer House bash, but it was Starmer, wearing an eyebrow-raising open-necked black shirt number, who set tongues wagging.

Whether the Labour leader did enough to convince the News Corporation tycoon that he and his party are deserving of endorsement by the group’s newspapers and channels come the ballot, remains to be seen.

With some Tory insiders predicting that Rishi Sunak may opt to go to the country as early as April, ahead of local elections in May, the next few months are going to be marked by intense wooing.

First up are the party conferences, with editors and senior executives in attendance, and dinners, receptions and private meetings being slotted into diaries now.

Given Labour’s lead in the polls, the talk among its ranks and air of resignation on the faces of many Tories that we could be heading for a repeat of 1997, the assumption is that Starmer will receive across-the-board media support, that even some traditional Tory-supporting titles will back him.

In 1997, after all, the moment that appeared to indicate Tony Blair was heading for Downing Street was when the Sun’s front page announced: “The Sun Backs Blair.”

This is in sharp contrast to 1992, when the paper adorned its cover with a mock-up of the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, superimposed on a light bulb and the headline: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

John Major’s subsequent victory enabled Murdoch’s paper to exclaim: “It Was The Sun Wot Won It.”

Which will Starmer be — Kinnock or Blair?

Judging by the warmth of the greeting he received, not just from Murdoch, but from the rest of the News Corp throng, over bowls of beef and potatoes dauphinoise, Starmer will receive a Blairstyle anointment.

There are those who are not so sure.

Starmer and Murdoch’s team are not new to each other. When he was director of public prosecutions, he accepted more hospitality from the Murdoch-owned newspapers than the rest of the British press combined. On 10 occasions, he was wined and dined by them.

He went to Murdoch’s summer party and The Times’ Christmas drinks.

Contact ceased, though, with the advent of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry.

It was on Starmer’s watch that the decision was taken to prosecute Rebekah Brooks, a move he defended.

Brooks, ex-editor of Murdoch’s News of the World and his most senior executive until her resignation, was acquitted and subsequently returned as head of News Corp.

Starmer, too, proudly boasts of having been a legal observer at the Wapping dispute, when Murdoch took on the print trade unions.

That’s presumably in the past, but Starmer still has his work cut out if he wants Murdoch’s vote.

Going right back to his days in newspaper publishing in Australia, the billionaire likes to back winners, he always wants to be on the winning side.

In theory, that should make his support a shoo-in, but increasingly there are those who maintain Labour and the Tories are not as far apart as the polls suggest, that the gap could narrow. Certainly, a Labour landslide is not a given.

In 1995, Major had a 30-minute meeting with Murdoch. It was a troubling period for the then prime minister. Murdoch’s papers had been calling for a change of Conservative leader and they were heaping praise on Blair. According to government documents, Major was instructed to show “supreme confidence and clear vision” at the No 10 encounter.

It didn’t work.

Accompanying that pro-Blair front page, the Sun said the Labour leader was the “breath of fresh air” that Britain needed, while the Tories were “tired, divided and rudderless”.

The doubts surround Starmer’s ability to articulate his plan. He’s got the confidence, but does he have the clear vision?

When Blair took charge of Labour in 1994, the Rightwing media jury was firmly out. “Where’s the Beef in Bambi?” asked the Daily Mail. Lord Rothermere’s paper retained that view, resolutely telling its readers to vote Tory, as did the Daily Telegraph, and as both newspaper groups are likely to do this time — neither displays much regard for Starmer, believing he is masking a party and a true intent they abhor.

Back then, Blair gave an interview to the Sun and was asked what kind of leader he would be?

He was prepared.  “People,” Blair said, “don’t want masses of figures. They don’t expect you to write a whole ramp of detailed policies. They want to know the character, identity and mission of the journey.”

He urged Sun readers to look at what Mrs Thatcher did. “What she said was what she believed in, and that’s what I will do.” The Sun was pleased, and so was Blair, with their line: “I’ll be like Thatcher. We need character, not policy documents.”

Blair was able to strike an approving chord with Murdoch, calling for “education, education, education”, watering down the socialist agenda evidenced by Clause 4, promoting wealth creation, ending poverty, bolstering law and order, creating a new Britain.

He was modern, fresh, different, brimming with energy and promise — all of which appealed. Starmer, who is being advised regularly by Blair, needs to find the same narrative.

Not that Sunak is any way better placed. It would be fascinating to observe Murdoch’s face if he gave Sunak 30 minutes in which to impress.

Again, Sunak would not lack for confidence. Quite what the clear vision would be and whether the grisly veteran had faith in his ability to deliver it, is a different matter altogether.

That’s the difficulty for Starmer, and for Sunak. There is not enough to distinguish them from each other, their policies blur, neither has the nation in their thrall.

Murdoch might take the view it’s impossible to declare either of them a soaraway victor, that he’s not sure if one has the cojones, as he would put it, worthy of his recommendation.

He may hold fire and back nobody. He would only be reflecting what is being said, and what will be repeated between now and voting day, that they’re both as bad or as good as each other.