Of the various factions Theresa May has to satisfy with her campaign manifesto, none are as demanding as the Conservative-supporting newspapers.
The UK’s right-wing press has been full-throated in its support of the prime minister since she took over last summer – a significant advantage for the Conservatives heading into the election campaign.
But if Fleet Street has given May an easy ride, its support can’t be taken entirely for granted. Since the prime minister called the early election on 19 April, the newspapers’ editorial pages have set out various policies they want to see included in the Conservatives’ manifesto next week, reflecting the political views of their readers, editors, and, in some cases, their owners. Their positions still carry weight in Number 10, even if May’s appetite for the quick sugar hit of positive newspaper headlines may not be as insatiable as that of her predecessors.
The Daily Mail, probably the newspaper closest to May and her senior team, has urged her to be audacious, producing a vision that will “redraw the electoral map of Britain” and crush Labour for good. The Sun has also urged the prime minister to be “radical and brave”.
Here’s what the Conservatives’ manifesto would look like if the newspapers were setting it, based on a close reading of their editorials over the last two weeks:
Brexit means hard Brexit.
Most of the Tory press campaigned aggressively for leaving the European Union, after years of bashing Brussels, and they’ll be among the most strident voices against any backsliding. “Crush the saboteurs,” the front page of the Mail urged May the day after she announced an early election, referring to those who might try to stand in the way of enforcing the referendum result.
For these newspapers, leaving means a clean, hard exit: out of the single market and customs union, free from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, controlling our own borders. That, according to The Sun, is “the only meaningful interpretation of Brexit”. May must be given a clear directive from voters to be tough with Brussels, and walk away if Brussels doesn’t cooperate.
End free movement of people.
The press is divided as to whether May should retain David Cameron’s promise to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. The Sun calls it a “nonsense figure plucked from thin air”, while the Mail sees no harm in having a target that focuses officials’ minds “on the need to get migration down”. But regardless of whether the Conservatives keep Cameron’s controversial target, the right-wing press agrees: Curbing immigration must be a top priority. Aside from Brexit, it is “the other great issue of the day”, the Mail says.
Do more to help hard-pressed working families.
May’s attempts to reach out to the “just about managings” – those left behind by the “cold economic winds of globalisation”, as the Mail on Sunday put it – have been applauded by the newspapers. With Labour so weak, putting forward policies to address the “socially corrosive divide between the haves and have-nots” is essential to broadening the Conservatives’ reach. The key to May’s success, the Daily Mail says, is convincing disaffected traditional Labour voters, particularly in the North, that she is on their side.
Smash the corporate fat cats.
“She should start with an assault on corporate greed,” says the Daily Mail.
But don't abandon traditional Tory economic values.
Targeting disillusioned Labour voters doesn’t mean embracing their economic policies. “Tory socialism” isn’t the answer, the Daily Telegraph says. The right-wing papers are still committed to lowering taxes and cutting the welfare state. “The Conservative party is a low tax party, or it is nothing,” says the Sunday Telegraph.
May should keep Cameron’s 2015 manifesto commitment not to raise income tax or national insurance, the Sunday newspaper believes: “It is one of the reasons Mrs May is in power.” And while keeping a lid on taxes, the Daily Telegraph says, she should take an axe to the welfare system, to encourage self-reliance and roll back the massive expansion of the state that took place under Labour.
Open more grammar schools.
May’s plans to ease the rules on selective education are a hit with the Tory press. Grammars, according to the Mail, “gave so many bright working-class children a leg up in life before bien pensant liberals kicked the ladder away”.
Reform the House of Lords.
The “unelected” peers in the upper chamber are a constant target for the tabloids – especially after they voted to amend the legislation triggering Article 50. According to the Mail, the Lords is “an increasingly bloated house of cronies and dodgy party donors that is no longer fit for purpose”. To The Sun, the peers are “ancient, unelected party time-servers ruling over voters’ lives”. Their numbers should be slashed, the newspaper says.
Ditch David Cameron's foreign aid commitment.
One of the few policy commitments May has made on the stump since calling the early election was to retain the target of spending 0.7% of national income on foreign aid. Britain should be proud of the money it sends to the world’s poorest people, the prime minister said. It’s one of the few areas where she and the Tory press seem to disagree. Cameron’s target is wildly unpopular with the right-wing papers, whose reporting frequently characterises Britain’s aid and development spending as wasteful. Words like “scandalous” and “catastrophic” are used to describe Cameron’s commitment. “It is inexcusable to squander taxpayers’ billions abroad while social care patients suffer neglect at home,” says the Mail. “It belongs to an era when Mr Cameron was trying to appeal to the left by visibly abandoning the right,” says the Telegraph. “It proved to be a mistake.”
Build more affordable homes.
“She should reinvent our planning laws and unleash a house-building revolution that will help lower prices to affordable levels,” says The Sun. “As Margaret Thatcher found, there are few surer ways of attracting a new generation to the Tories than enabling them to own a home.”
Radically change the NHS.
“A Tory government with a decent majority, running a sound economy, might at last have the courage to think more radically how to create a better NHS,” The Sun argues. It didn’t spell out exactly what that might involve, but it would probably mean more services carried out by private providers and better-off patients being charged to see a doctor.
Get tougher on crime.
Policing has been hijacked by left-wing do-gooders, says the Sunday Telegraph. “Theresa May’s first, central mission is to protect people’s lives, liberty and property. Get that right and the Just About Managings will reward her at the ballot box.”
Spare us the political tricks.
David Cameron’s 2015 campaign manifesto included hundreds of promises – some of which, like the commitment not to raise taxes and the “triple lock” on state pensions, have bound May’s hands politically. According to the Mail, Cameron stuffed his manifesto with “reckless” gimmicks in a “cynical and dishonest” attempt to woo voters. May, the paper says, should pledge only policies that she can deliver.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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