And the winner was………

……….the right wing press!

Penny Mordaunt’s exit from the Tory leadership race has left her pondering a familiar question: do the UK’s rightwing newspapers still shape political debate, or do they simply have a knack for spotting which way the wind is blowing?

Press attacks take toll as Penny Mordaunt misses out in PM race

Jim Waterson 

One Mordaunt-supporting Conservative MP was in no doubt that she had narrowly missed out on her chance to be prime minister due to relentless criticism from rightwing outlets. “The nasty personal attacks in the Mail and Telegraph cut through,” they said.

The papers portrayed her as having been absent from her former ministerial job and as a “woke” supporter of transgender rights. They put questions to Mordaunt’s team about other, more personal stories that did not ultimately appear in print.

Readers of the Daily Mail in particular were left in no doubt as to how the publication felt about Mordaunt, who topped polls of party members and briefly became the bookmakers’ favourite to be Britain’s next PM.

This may be due in part to Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor who is rumoured to be in the running for a peerage in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours. He retains influence over his old newspaper and in December he wrote about sitting next to Liz Truss at a dinner: “She is clearly a toughie, possessed of a steely self-belief, an imperviousness to the media, a healthy contempt for the male species, a seemingly genuine belief in a low-tax, small-state economy and a disarming habit of asking abrupt questions and dismissing the response as ‘bollocks’ – a tactic clearly designed to gain further elucidation.”

In the two weeks since Johnson was ousted, the Mail has talked down Mordaunt on its front pages and attempted to boost the standing of Truss, who won through to the final two with Rishi Sunak on Wednesday.

Front-page headlines included “Mordaunt’s No 10 bid hits buffers”, “Mordaunt under the microscope”, “New favourite Penny under fire for ‘lies’ on trans views” and “Mordaunt flouted No 10 ban to meet boycotted group”.

Sunak also received critical treatment – in line with the outgoing Johnson administration’s reported desire for an “anyone but Rishi” candidate – while Truss enjoyed headlines such as “Unite now or we lose, Truss tells Tory right”, “Liz tax boost for families” and Wednesday’s eve-of-vote call to arms: “Truss allies warn: no dirty backroom deals.”

At points the Mail’s front pages have appeared targeted more at the pool of Conservative MPs voting in the first stage of the leadership than the general reader or even the Tory party members who will now receive a ballot.

“They clearly just decided they wanted Liz and would do all they could to get her in the final two,” said one Daily Mail journalist of the approach taken by executives including the editor, Ted Verity.

The Daily Telegraph has also been critical of Mordaunt, with her previously positive position towards transgender rights and self-identification policies as equalities minister being held against her.

The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, has opened a leak inquiry after documents relating to Mordaunt’s time as equalities minister were published on the front page of the Sunday Times. However, in common with many Whitehall leak inquiries, there is little expectation among Mordaunt supporters that this will uncover the culprit – and in any case, any damage has been done.

Sunak remains hopeful of picking up the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Times as ballots are sent to party members. The role of Michael Gove, who helped mastermind Kemi Badenoch’s campaign, could be decisive on this issue. A former journalist at the Times, he remains close to Rupert Murdoch and is said to be strongly against Truss becoming prime minister.

Although Truss can now expect to receive full-blooded support from Tory outlets that remain loyal to Johnson, she may not receive entirely uncritical support from the Daily Mail, which will have its own views on how she should approach the contest. Dacre wrote in the Spectator last year: “I hope she won’t mind me suggesting that she might benefit from a Maggie-style makeover to smooth that metallic voice and irritating raucous laugh.”