By Lucy Clement
Could the Sun win it again for the Tories? That's the tantalising prospect held out to new party leader Michael Howard by News International boss Rupert Murdoch this week.
It was a clever piece of news management on Murdoch's part. All week rival papers had been printing critical stories about the appointment of his son James as Chief Executive. What better way to deflect them than with a juicy alternative story to run?
Murdoch, whose company owns not only the Sun, but also the News of the World, Times, Sunday Times and Sky Television, said if the Tory front bench looked like a "viable alternative government" then his papers' support for Labour would no longer be guaranteed. That's a long way from saying he's going to switch, but it will certainly cause some headaches for the Blair spin machine.
It's hard to imagine the Guardian backing the Tories, or the Mail Labour. But the News International papers have switched before and will switch again. They were loyally Thatcherite in the 1980s, and infamously opposed Labour in 1992, but backed Tony Blair in 1997.
Such behaviour has two advantages. First, it enables the proprietor to claim he's owed favours when it comes to, say, the government changing media competition rules, and second, catching the readers' mood can't do sales any harm at all.
Murdoch has some problems with Blair. Specifically, unlike Blair - who for all the delay on the euro is a pro-European to the point of wanting to be EU President - Rupert Murdoch is anti-euro and opposed in particular to the new draft EU constitution. It's the "Up Yours, Delors!" attitude of the notorious Sun headline.
That attitude makes business sense for Murdoch. His empire isn't European. It's British / American / Australian - and expanding in the Far East. European integration makes no business sense for Rupert. Particularly not given his hostility to workers' rights and notorious opposition (at least in the UK) to trade unions.
It was notable that at his very first Prime Minister's Questions Michael Howard - responding to some jibes from Blair about his past - retorted with a reference to Blair's long-ago backing for the Wapping strikers. Did Blair remind Rupert Murdoch about that, he asked?
A name-check in Howard's first set-piece battle with Blair is evidence of just how much the Tories would like Murdoch's backing. But could that really win them an election? In 1992, it was "The Sun Wot Won It", the paper said, with its front page portrayal of Kinnock in a light bulb. Don't take that at face value. One survey in the 1980s found a large proportion of Sun readers thought it was a Labour paper, and this in its high Thatcherite days. A lot of tabloid readers stick to the sport and showbiz news - and if political stories matter to them, they tend to pick a paper which reflects their own view.
So far, the News International papers have been generally supportive of Michael Howard. They've given him a good write-up. But the Tories would need an unprecedented change in their electoral fortunes to get back into power - and even the party's more optimistic backers think they're talking about the election after next. Would Murdoch really back a party that can't win?
Well, maybe. A strong Tory showing, even without a win, would push further back the prospect of Britain joining the euro. It would strengthen the eurosceptics' hand in future negotiations. And if backing the Tories means backing a loser, bear in mind that by 2005 backing Labour could well mean - in the eyes of the Sun - backing a government that's losing its grip.