It was the Sun wot lost it (for the Labour conference at least)

The big news in Britain: Rupert Murdoch’s biggest newspaper, the Sun, has come out for the Tories after 12 years supporting Labour.

Today should have been the start of Gordon Brown’s fightback. The prime minister’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday went down well with the demoralised delegates, although leader writers – with the exception of the FT (“There is life yet in Gordon Brown,” the FT says) – were pretty negative.

The Times, Telegraph and Guardian all agree: Brown’s oratory was good enough to keep him at the helm of Labour until the country votes, but not good enough to win the election. The Telegraph:

Within these narrow confines, Mr Brown succeeded. It is not quite a question of being at one bound free, more of being allowed to survive until polling day.

The Times, the Sun’s upmarket sister paper, liked the tub-thumping start to the speech – the long list of achievements acted as a reminder of why Brown was number two in the party for so long.

Could the Prime Minister once more press these ideas into service behind a cogent argument and an attractive platform? Unfortunately, he could not. For he was not able to continue as he started. The first few paragraphs of his speech, with their power, were not on his script. And the moment that he turned to his script it rapidly became possible to wish that he had not

The Guardian was mildly more positive, but takes the same fundamental view: Brown might have convinced the party, but he needs to convince the country.

So back to the Sun, which has clearly undermined Brown’s effort to take the message to the country, even if just by the timing – today’s news is leading with the Sun’s rejection of Labour, not with Brown’s half-hearted list of new policies. Brown has already had to answer questions about it on this morning’s BBC radio interview, which should have been the start of his fight back. “It is people that decide elections,” he said, a pretty pathetic riposte to the Sun’s long list of Labour failings.

On the blogs, Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome warns the Tories not to be complacent, but says there is a possibility every paper bar the Mirror will abandon Labour - with the Daily Mail the next big target.

Iain Dale is equally unsympathetic, as one might expect. It isn’t just the fact of the Sun support for the Tories, it is the timing: eight months before the expected election date. When the Sun came out for Labour in 1997, it had just six week of cheerleading to change the minds of its readers.

Liberal Conspiracy’s Sunder Katwala missed the point completely, treating the speech as a policy platform.

The speech showed how the challenges of presenting a sharper electoral choice and entrenching a Labour policy can be linked. The last 200 days of government ahead of the General Election and certainly going to be busy.

He might or might  not be right about the policies, but it is hard to see Brown being able to mount any sort of fightback when he is tactically outmanouvred at every step.

Not that David Cameron, Conservative leader, is regarded as particularly competent – either in the country or the media – but Labour’s key challenge is to persuade people to turn their fire on the Tories and demand to know where the spending axe will fall. A new list of (outdated) policies which open Labour to the challenge of unrealistic spending promises won’t help them make that case.

Either way, Bagehot doesn’t think Brown made it, and taking the temperature at the Labour conference, is pretty unimpressed.

There is a mix of fatalism and ostrich-like denial that is preventing Labour from facing up to its daunting prospects.

[EDIT] Update: it isn’t just the Sun wot lost it. Gordon’s  lost it too, with another arm of Murdoch’s media empire, Sky News – at least according to the Evening Standard, who said he “stormed out” of an interview still attached to his microphone.

Unfortunately for the prime minister,the simplest act can now be interpreted to make him look silly. Sky has put the whole 11-minute interview up on a blog so you can make your own judgement – Brown faced some pretty aggressive questioning, but it is hard to distinguish Sky’s (Murdochs?) aggressive questions from the BBC’s aggressive questions. “I try to get my message across, it doesn’t help when the newspapers translate it to something different from what it is,” Brown said. Sadly for him, it seems he had better get used to that.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

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