At 9pm on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published online a glowing endorsement of Boris Johnson by the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi. Headlined “Get ready for Boris 2.0, the man who will make the Tories and Britain great again”, the piece set out a case for why the former prime minister would imminently return triumphant to Downing Street.
Unfortunately for Zahawi, his piece was published at the exact moment that Johnson told reporters he was dropping out of the leadership contest. Within minutes, the Telegraph had made the unusual decision to wipe Zahawi’s article from the internet without following the standard journalistic practice of offering an explanation or leaving an editor’s note.
Telegraph journalists have privately mocked the decision, suggesting it was an attempt to spare the blushes of a senior Conservative politician – only for it to rapidly backfire as archived copies circulated online.
A Telegraph Media Group spokesperson said of the deletion: “As a digital first publisher we respond quickly to major news events and update our content as quickly as possible.”
Because while Boris Johnson’s dash back from a family holiday in the Dominican Republic created confusion among his loyal supporters in the Conservative parliamentary party, it created even more confusion among his loyal supporters at certain British newspapers.
Over the weekend, several friendly outlets were lukewarm on the prospect of Johnson taking a second tilt at becoming prime minister. The Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, prominently promoted an opinion piece by Charles Moore that declared that “true Boris fans will have the courage to tell him to sit this one out”.
The Daily Mail, which had remained loyal to the king over the water in the Caribbean, ran the front-page headline “Could Boris and Rishi now unite to save Tories?” next to an editorial urging Johnson and Rishi Sunak to put their egos aside.
The Mail and the Telegraph have had their fingers burned by enthusiastic backing for Liz Truss and her financial policies, only to watch as the candidate they pushed into Downing Street imploded on contact with economic reality.
When Johnson eventually did decide to stand aside on Sunday night, it was just in time for a rapid rewriting of newspaper editorials. The Mail described his decision to exit the contest as “a remarkable gesture of magnanimity from a remarkable politician – perhaps the most brilliant of his generation”.
In a glowing editorial it praised Johnson, suggesting it was in his gift to choose whether he wanted to be prime minister. “With his formidable campaigning skills, optimism and vision, and ability to woo parts of the electorate that had never voted Tory before – to great success in the Red Wall – who would have bet against him? But for the good of the party and the nation, he set his dream aside. This was a gesture of wisdom and statesmanship. By withdrawing from the race, he has spared his party a bloody and fatal civil war.”
It said his generosity “stands in stark contrast with the petulance of some of Rishi’s supporters, who undermined Liz Truss out of spite”.
Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail’s parent company, dmg media, is still hoping to be made a Conservative life peer as part of Johnson’s resignation honours.
Although print newspaper circulations continue to fall, the coverage in friendly papers still tends to frame internal Tory party disputes – and therefore shape how the country is run.
In terms of political influence, one rightwing newspaper group has possibly come out of the recent turmoil with more leverage. Rupert Murdoch’s News UK was sceptical about Truss from the start, with the Times endorsing Sunak for leader this summer, and it described Johnson’s decision to drop out of the latest contest as a “huge relief”.
As a result, Murdoch’s outlets can lay claim to being closest to Sunakism – whatever that may mean – and could hope for a close relationship with No 10 if he becomes prime minister.