Generally, journalists shouldn’t talk shop about the press in mixed company. But an exception should be made, I reckon, for the Daily Mail, which has had for so long a unique place in national life as a political player in its own right. It gave a voice to a tribe: the socially conservative and it was, most obviously, the house journal and campaigning expression of Brexit: the full-fat version.
All that changed when Geordie Greig, an urbane, likeable and intelligent Etonian, replaced Paul Dacre last year as editor, but it’s only now that the changes are really working through. This week, the Mail’s former parliamentary sketch writer, Quentin Letts surfaced in the Times, having left the Mail of his own volition, possibly not wholly enchanted by its volte face on Brexit. The Mail is now the one paper which supports the PM’s line on the issue with anything like enthusiasm. Whereas previously, it had lots of time for the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, now it wrinkles its nose at Brexiteers and the ERG as a bit, you know, swivel-eyed.
When Geordie Greig, who is a bit of a genius in some ways, took over as editor at the Evening Standard he put out posters apologising to readers for the sins of the paper in the past. But the about-turn at the Mail has happened without any acknowledgement that its world has been pulled inside out: for up, read down, for left, read right. The one continuity in its editorial line is that Geordie, like Dacre, takes a dim view of Jeremy Corbyn.
For many readers, Quentin Letts’ departure epitomises the changes in the paper, given his robust approach and upfront world view; he thinks Brexit is rather a good thing, and no one is quite so devastatingly honest or so deadly in homing in on individual MPs. But there are other changes. The cartoonist Mac has left – very old school, Mac, not least in his ability to draw; the columnist Tom Utley has semi-retired as leader-writer, which means he won’t have to contort himself to accommodate the new editorial line; Peter McKay, one of the great figures of Fleet Street as was is retiring from the Ephraim Hardcastle column, which was possibly the most read seven or eight paragraphs in print. His successor, John McEntee, a friend, is a proper, old school hack – there is no higher praise – but still, it all makes for discontinuity, discombobulation and downright alienation for readers.
It all matters, because the great thing about politics in Britain is that there is usually a respectable outlet for reasonably respectable disaffection. Paul Dacre helped shaft Ukip in the last but one election by not only instructing readers to vote strategically for other parties, but telling them how to do it where. And yet he gave Brexiteers a local habitation, an expression of their identity and aspirations. The Mail was a sort of journalistic substitute for Ukip; I’m not sure where those people will go now, though obviously the Telegraph or the Sun would be glad to have them.
But Mail readers are Tory Brexiteers. Where can Labour Leavers go? They’ve never really had a print outlet but the Labour party itself was once sufficiently ambiguous and elastic to accommodate them. That’s changed, now that Jeremy Corbyn has been corralled into backing a second referendum. Labour Leavers still have some MPs from Brexity constituencies on side, like Ian Austin, even though he’s now independent, but they can’t really pretend any more that the party can swing both ways. They can’t vote for Ukip now. Where do they go?
As I say, one of the reasons why Britain is politically more moderate than other European countries is that it has ways — journalistic and political — of expressing dissent, which keep it from veering to extremes. When the disaffected feel they have no real expression in the party system or even in the media, it makes for cynicism at best, alienation at worst. Right now, Brexiteers on left and right don’t have a home to go to.