Political theatre worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Sky News political editor Faisal Islam stands outside 10 Downing Street speculating on an important Cabinet meeting, when Jacob Rees-Mogg appears, holding a large box. The thin white duke makes his delivery at the glossy black door and comes over to Faisal, who mischievously asks: ‘Are you measuring up the curtains?’ Not at all, responds the loyal but highly principled Rees-Mogg. He’s unashamedly representing 100,000 readers of the Daily Express, who are protesting against the mandatory siphoning of taxpayers’ money on the foreign aid farrago. Can you imagine any other leading Tory acting in this way?
Twenty years ago, when the Metro freesheet was launched, I doubted whether the mid-range newspapers could survive. Lacking the titillation of the Sun or the serious verbiage of the broadsheets, the Express was locked in a repeat cycle of weather warnings, house price surges or crashes, ‘who killed Diana’, and then Madeleine McCann. Surely, as the elderly readers died off, the Express would retire from the news-stands. Indeed, circulation figures are a fraction of what they were in the 1980s, largely due to the internet. And now this Right-of-centre tabloid has been taken over by the Labour-supporting Mirror Group.
Yet the Daily Express has had a revival of late, arguably becoming one of the most important newspapers in Britain. For many years it ploughed a lonely furrow with its campaign to leave the EU. In their dreams. No sensible person, whatever their views on EU bureaucracy and power-grabbing treaties, believed that could happen. But if it kept the nostalgic readers happy, let them be. Then Nigel Farage led UKIP to some storming results in European and local elections, and two Conservative MPs defected with rumours of several more. David Cameron was forced into pledging a referendum on EU membership, often attributed to Tory infighting, but really due to public pressure. The crusading Express played a leading part in teaching socially conservative Tory voters that their party no longer represented them.
Throughout the EU referendum campaign the Express was on steroids. Its hitherto forgettable website was given purpose as a Brexit news hub. Contrary to the ‘little Englander’ slur of newspaper reviewers, the Express website gives interesting (if biased) coverage of European politics, often reporting stories omitted by other mainstream media. I have a Czech friend who tells me of the deep-seated animosity of her compatriots to the Eurocrats; they suffered four decades under Soviet rule, so why would they want another cabal of foreigners running their country? Only the Express has kept up a commentary on the likelihood of ‘Czeckout’, which has become very real since the recent presidential election. There are burgeoning anti-Brussels movements in most EU member states, and the online Express is a keen monitor of these developments.
In the traditional paper format, writers such as Leo McKinstry, Frederick Forsyth and Jennifer Selway provide a daily dose of incisive commentary on the smug and contemptuous liberal establishment. You know, the establishment that celebrates the centenary of suffrage but then tries to overturn a plebiscite. Women’s votes are great, until they vote the wrong way! The occasional piece by James Delingpole on the global warming dogma is another plus. See how well the irretrievably unfashionable Express columnist Ann Widdecombe did on Celebrity Big Brother. A sense of irony was the only possible way of that being explicable to Guardian readers. But I think she succeeded through her robust display of common sense, exposing the ultimately nihilist identity politics of her younger and supposedly more-in-tune housemates.
Now, is all this at risk with the Mirror takeover? Not necessarily. The Times under Rupert Murdoch was more liberal than ever. If you have a distinct product, why neuter it? The Express has a market niche with its cocking-a-snook attitude to interfering government and PC busybodies, and there is little appetite for the medium-strength Corbynism spouted by the Daily Mirror. The Express has its faults but none of them would be rectified by homogenising it into our contemporary culture of Orwellian thought control masquerading as progressive values. Use it or lose it.