If Blair played footsie with the tabloids Cameron has brought them in-house…

The story in Westminster continues, if at a decidedly lower pitch now the Guardian has shot most of the bolts in it possession. For context, the Tory blogosphere until three days ago confident and even bellicose in it’s prosecution of the case against an ageing Labour administration is now unusually silent on any matters of substance.

Guido’s list of what’s hot and cooking in the media is normally a highly reliable weather vein towards some of the sharpest comment on the net and in the pages of the UKs top columnists. Not a word on #Murdochgate.

Likewise Iain Dale whose nose for insider gossip in the Tory party is normally faultless, leaves to the LibDems the news that Coulson may appear before a Tory backbench ethics committee. The silence across the Tory blogosphere is palpable.

Both the Sunday Times and the News of the World are both running, but they turn out to be strong headlines fastened onto weak rebuttals.

You could argue that the rebuttals are weak precisely because the Guardian has hardly got New International banged to rights on the allegations of running a systemic culture of illegal ‘probes’.

But the fact that everyone seems to be ducking the crucial proliferation question raised by the Guardian story must give rise to the suspicion that the organisation is trying to dodge a bullet.

That said the problem (and in my view it is the lesser one) for the Tories is that the customary suspension of disbelief is already fading just under a year before they go to the polls.

Andrew Rawnsley outlines the political danger that’s likely to persist long after next Tuesday’s select committee hearing, or any party hearing. Heretofore, Mr Coulson has performed well, but the tide has also be flowing in his and the Tories’ direction:

With the exception of a brief period last autumn when the financial crisis gave a boost to Gordon Brown, the Tories have had a big, usually double-figure, advantage in the opinion polls.

The economy is in recession. Labour has been in power for 12 years. The government is desperately unpopular. The prime minister is a terrible media performer. There has been an attempted coup against him. The almost universal assumption is that the Conservatives are on their way to power. That influences how they are treated by many reporters, commentators, editors and proprietors.

There is a disinclination to seriously probe what the Conservatives will do with power. There has been a reluctance among some of the press to really go for the Tories over the phone-hacking scandal, partly because many other newspapers are implicated in the practice as well, and partly for fear of crossing Mr Coulson, who will be a powerful figure at Number 10, with a lot of control over access to stories.

There is a parallel with 1994-97 when Tony Blair was leading Labour back to power after a long period in opposition. Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were widely portrayed as geniuses at presentation. They were lauded as the master sorcerers of manipulating the media and shaping public opinion. Some of the same journalists who were awed by their dark arts during that period then went on to denounce them as mendacious bullies when Labour ceased to be so popular.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d’Ancona thinks it is best to get all of this over with before Cameron and Coulson team move into number 10.

That appears to be the fervent hope amongst those Tories who’ve been lit by the Cameron mission too. He also mentions Blair’s early “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy” moment when he bent the truth over the Bernie Ecclestone affair.

The sense that Mr Coulson has similarly bent the truth is what has sustained this story. But the F1 donors story took place six months after Blair got elected to meet with that moment of reckoning. He got away with it by not being straight at all and using that famous charm of his.

The trouble for the Tories is that this is happening possibly a full nine months before taking office.

We’ve bigger stories than this disappear overnight. Cameron has made his gamble and is hoping it will it to a close by next Tuesday. Even the back benchers may be placated with a sense that they just have to stick with Cameron’s winning instinct.

But if Blair’s Labour administration played footsie with big tabloid media under the table, Mr Cameron has brought the lower end of it in-house

If that’s change, it is hardly change for the better… And as former Sun editor David Yelland said on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, all of this is likely to come under greater scrutiny once the Tories come to power

Meanwhile, they wait for someone to convincingly change the subject….

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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