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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK

UK Politics

Relationship fouled by the Reds?

Critics said Blair was too close to Murdoch

By BBC News Online's Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The government's decision to block BskyB's move to take over Manchester United could mark the end of the controversial relationship between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch.

That relationship has been a constant source of difficulty for the government, with critics claiming that the prime minister was far too close to the media magnate - and even owed Labour's 1997 election victory to him.

Murdoch's big match
And there is no doubt that Mr Blair was eager to ensure Mr Murdoch and his newspapers backed Labour at the election.

The two men met before the poll for a meeting which was widely interpreted as an attempt by Mr Blair to swing the hugely-influential Sun newspaper behind New Labour.

It worked - and during the campaign Mr Murdoch's newspaper shocked voters by reversing its old Tory-supporting role and coming out wholeheartedly behind Mr Blair.

[ image: Murdoch's popular paper came out in favour of Blair]
Murdoch's popular paper came out in favour of Blair
But it was not long after the election that the prime minister found himself being accused of trying to do Mr Murdoch a favour.

Confusion and controversy surrounded a telephone conversation Mr Blair had with the then Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, in March last year when Mr Murdoch was trying to buy a leading Italian TV network.

Downing Street was forced to deny suggestions that Mr Blair had attempted to intervene on Mr Murdoch's behalf.

Job move

The deal never got off the ground, but the whole affair left many opposition MPs convinced that Mr Blair had been trying to repay the media baron for his support.

Things got worse when Downing Street aide Tim Allen left to take a job with Mr Murdoch.

Mr Allen was a close colleague of the then Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson who - before his resignation over the "cash for homes" row - was set to rule on Mr Murdoch's attempt to buy Manchester United.

But the relationship has not been a straightforward one and Mr Murdoch has been a constant critic of Mr Blair's willingness to take Britain into the single European currency.

The Sun even went so far as to carry a headline asking if the prime minister was "the most dangerous man in Britain" because of his policy on the euro.

But attacks on the apparent relationship between Downing Street and Mr Murdoch continued and reached such a peak that Chancellor Gordon Brown travelled to America to attend a conference run by the media magnate with the specific task of proving the government was not in his pocket.

He told the conference of News International executives that there was no way the government was going to cave in to pressure and change its policy on the euro.

Clearest signal

But the continuing row meant the Manchester United deal was bound to provoke massive political interest.

Stephen Byers, who took over from Mr Mandelson after he resigned as trade secretary, could have over ruled the findings of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but that would have proved hugely controversial.

It has sent the clearest possible signal that the government is not prepared to do favours in return for support - however powerful.

What remains to be seen is exactly how the decision will affect Mr Murdoch's support for Tony Blair.

What is certain is that Mr Murdoch is a businessman first and a politician second.

Many are convinced that he would happily abandon his opposition to the euro if it proved commercially beneficial to do so. His support for New Labour will be equally hard-headed.

Mr Byers's decision may have disappointed Mr Murdoch, but his decision whether to back Mr Blair at the next election will have far more to do with how he thinks another term of New Labour government will affect his business interests.

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