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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Could it be the Sun wot wins it again?

By Torin Douglas
BBC News media correspondent

What made the Sun jump off the fence, just two weeks after putting Labour on notice that it couldn't yet count on its support in this election?

And what difference will it make to the newspaper's coverage - and the voting intentions of its readers?

When the paper announced it was "going to listen very carefully to Labour and the Tories between now and May 5, to see which party deserves the backing of our readers", many assumed it would do just that - wait till May 5.

The paper's decision to plump for Labour two weeks before polling day is significant

Instead it listened carefully up until April 20 and then, as if it could bottle it up no longer, came out for Labour in a blaze of red smoke.

The smoke was a classic Sun stunt, echoing the events in Rome the day before.

Some believe the timing of its announcement was dictated more by the stunt than political conviction.

Dramatic front page

The billowing black, then white, then red clouds pouring from the Sun chimney gave the TV cameras something to focus on and the paper a dramatic front page.

Sun's smoke signal
Red smoke: good news for Labour
Was the stunt dreamed up on the spur of the moment, prompted by the drama in Rome? Or, if the cardinals had taken a few more days to come to their decision, would the Sun have waited too?

Either way, the paper's decision to plump for Labour two weeks before polling day is significant.

A few months ago, there was still a suspicion it might just support Michael Howard.

Rupert Murdoch had invited the Conservative leader to address his News Corporation conference in Canjun in Mexico and later told the BBC's business editor Jeff Randall he was impressed by Howard's leadership of the party.

Polls stagnant

But the polls have failed to respond to the Conservatives' message.

Its front-page rallying cry "One Last Chance" hardly carried the ring of conviction.
Had they done so, the Sun might have kept Blair sweating a week or two longer.

The decision also means the Sun can now campaign wholeheartedly for its party of choice - as the Daily Mirror has been doing for Labour and the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph have for the Conservatives.

Whether it does so remains to be seen.

Its front-page rallying cry "One Last Chance" hardly carried the ring of conviction.

Nor did its leading article: "After taking a deep breath, The Sun backs Labour for a third term. It's Tony Blair's one last chance to fulfil all the great promises he keeps making..."

Inside, under the headline "Vote Blair & Brown", it remained half-hearted: "For now, The Sun urges Britain to vote for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for two reasons: Standing firm on Iraq and the lack of a real alternative."

Ferocious campaign

Compare that with the way it attacked Neil Kinnock in 1992, when it was campaigning ferociously for John Major.

On polling day, it portrayed Kinnock's head as a light bulb with the headline - printed in white on a Tory blue background - "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person in Britain put out the lights".

During this election, it is the Conservatives that have so far enjoyed the strongest support from the press
A day or two later the paper proclaimed "It's the Sun Wot Won It" - the truth of which has been debated endlessly ever since.

The headline - written by the editor Kelvin MacKenzie - was supported by comments from the Tory MP for Basildon who agreed it was the Sun's coverage, culminating in the election day front page, which had swung it.

The Tory Party treasurer Lord McAlpine wrote that MacKenzie and the editors of the Daily Mail, Sir David English, and the Daily Express, Sir Nicholas Lloyd were the heroes of the Tory campaign.

"This was how the election was won" he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

But Murdoch, it emerged, was furious with the claim that his newspapers could swing elections.

Backtracked

The Sun quickly backtracked. When Kinnock blamed the tabloid press for his defeat and threatened to complain to the Press Complaints Commission, the Sun called him a "whinger" saying it was "an insult to the intelligence of the 14 million people who voted Conservative".

Even so, it was that event which convinced Tony Blair and his media chiefs Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell that they must win over - or at least neutralise - the Sun if Labour was ever to win power again.

Intriguingly, during this election, it is the Conservatives that have so far enjoyed the strongest support from the press - with the Mail, Express and Telegraph all campaigning hard on their front and inside pages.

So far, if the polls are to be believed, it's made no difference at all.



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