By Jon Allsop, CJR| Britain’s partisan press takes aim at the “Brexshit”
|CRIMSON TAZVINZWA, AIWA! NO!|After finally reaching agreement with the European Union on the details of Brexit earlier this week, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, wobbled. Domestic critics assailed her from all sides—charging, variously, that the deal she struck would entail too close a relationship with the EU or not enough of one.
Yesterday, two members of May’s cabinet—including the official who, in theory, had been responsible for the Brexit negotiations—resigned, saying they could not support the deal. Senior backbench lawmakers, desperate to sever as many ties as possible with the EU, threatened to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership. When May stood up in Parliament to promise a “smooth and orderly” exit from the bloc, mocking laughter peeled around the House of Commons.
Swathes of Britain’s press, which is reliably opinionated, have, predictably, piled on May, too, renewing long-held criticisms of her performance and the Brexit process as a whole. On the left, The Guardian offered rare, faint praise of May, but painted her deal as a disaster with flaws “intrinsic to the very idea of Brexit,” which the paper has always opposed. On the right, the Murdoch-ownedSun—which vociferously backed Brexit leading up to the 2016 vote and has since pushed for a cleaner break with Europe than May is offering—screamed yesterday, in melodramatic all caps, that “WE’RE IN THE BREXS*IT.” The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has topped its front page with scathing opinion pieces for two days running. Yesterday, it went with a wounding assessment by Nick Timothy, May’s former right-hand man, that the deal was “a capitulation.” Today, it quoted columnist Allison Pierson’s call for May to resign immediately. “We need a chess grandmaster to wrangle with Brussels,” Pierson writes, “not the runner-up in the 1973 Towcester tiddlywinks competition.”
Britain’s print media are not generally prone to changing their spots, yet the past few months have brought some curious, and important, realignments. A year and a day ago, the right-wing Daily Mail mocked up a mugshot-gallery-style front page with pictures of Conservative Party lawmakers who favored Britain’s EU membership under the headline “The Brexit mutineers” (afterward, some of them received threats). Since then, however, Paul Dacre, the Mail’s pro-Brexit editor, departed, and was replaced by Geordie Greig, a convinced “Remainer.” This morning, the Mail once again took aim at Conservative rebels—this time, however, it was those on the opposite, hard-right wing of the party that drew its ire. Calling them “preening saboteurs,” the paper asked, in its front-page headline, “HAVE THEY LOST THE PLOT?”
The Daily Express, a strident right-wing voice of yore, has been kind to May’s soft Brexit deal this week, too. It, too, got a new editor this year, appointing Gary Jones, who formerly led the Sunday Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid. At a Parliamentary hearing shortly after his appointment, Jones called some of his paper’s past content “Islamophobic” and “downright offensive,” and promised a softening of tone. Yesterday, the Express painted the “rosiest picture as far as May is concerned” of any paper, the Guardian observed, “with no mention of leadership challenges or cabinet troubles”; this morning, its front-page headline called May “defiant.”
Britain’s tabloids pride themselves on their ability to shape the country’s political agenda. In 1992, a now-mythic Sun front page famously claimed credit for an unexpected Conservative Party election victory (“IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”). The foundations of the country’s vote to leave the EU, too, were undoubtedly laid by decades of hostility toward Europe on the part of right-wing papers, the Mail and the Express prominent among them. May remains very much under-fire—not least from The Sun—though it will comfort her that at least a few strong media voices who would previously have ridiculed her deal are standing behind it, and her, for now.
The extent to which British papers lead their readers by the nose, rather than the other way around, however, has long been an open debate. A YouGov pollout today indicates widespread public rejection of May’s deal, with many citizens pushing for a second referendum instead. Like everywhere else, newspaper circulation in Britain is declining. If Brexit is the apotheosis of the country’s campaigning press, it might also mark the start of a new, steep decline.
Below, more on Brexit:
- A1: The Guardian has a good round-up of today’s British newspaper front pages.
- B3: While right-wing columnists in the Telegraph slammed May’s deal and called for a harder Brexit, the paper today gave page three to an op-ed by Tony Blair, former Labour Party prime minister, who is campaigning for a second vote to keep Britain in Europe after all.
- C you later: When May became prime minister after the Brexit vote, in 2016, she sacked George Osborne, who had served as finance minister under May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Osborne then quit politics to become editor of the Evening Standard, a London newspaper. He’s used that perch to relentlessly hound May: according to Esquire, he said last year that he would not rest until she is “chopped up in bags in my freezer.” It comes as no surprise that the Standard has been hard on May’s deal this week, calling it “dead.”
- D parts: In July, The Atlantic’s Tom Rachman wrote that Paul Dacre’s departure from the Mail could change Britain. “The Daily Mail still commands vast power, its thunderous front-page headlines all but causing the paintings to tremble at 10 Downing Street,” Rachman wrote. “And this is where Greig comes in, for he is about to take control at the inky institution, perhaps editing this country’s political chaos in the process.”