Rupe’s downmarket troops at the Sun have never previously shied away from nailing their colours to the mast come polling day: from backing Margaret Thatcher three times, to calling 1992 for “Shagger” Major, to switching to Tone in 1997 and giving him the nod via the rather lame “red smoke” story in 2005, the paper has come out on the side of the winner. But today is different.
“The Sun is not going to tell you how to vote today” proclaims Sun Says, which is a relief, because there are no elections in Crewe, or indeed in any part of Cheshire, as these are limited to County Councils, and we now have a unitary authority (Cheshire East) which went to the polls in 2011 to elect its 82 councillors. But why is the paper not backing any one party today?
Here the moral high ground is taken: “today, as 18 million people have the chance to elect new local councils, none of the big four deserves our support. Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and yes, even UKIP, have all proved beyond your trust ... Who you choose today must be a local decision, not a national one ... Let them all win back our faith the hard way. One by one, from the bottom up”.
This sounds almost principled, an unprecedented stance for a Murdoch title. But there is no principle involved, except to retain credibility. Remember, the Sun expended a huge effort in 2010 in trying to get Young Dave over the win line without any help from Corporal Clegg. This campaign failed, and Cameron came up well short, despite Pa Broon’s unpopularity.
Consider also the sheer unpredictability of today’s elections: UKIP may have been polling in the high teens or even over 20%, but it’s entirely possible to garner a fifth of the vote and win nothing. In Crewe’s council elections last month, UKIP polled better than both Tories and Lib Dems. Their only problem was that Labour got even more votes, and so Farage’s fringe came away empty-handed.
There is a General Election precedent: in 1983, the then SDP-Liberal Alliance polled over 25% of the popular vote. They came away with less than 4% of the seats contested (Mrs T, on the other hand, fared rather better, turning just over 42% of that vote into more than 60% of seats). And UKIP, the party so many are watching today, is undoubtedly a protest party, as the Alliance was considered to be back then.
So the Sun is only refraining from backing UKIP, the Tories, or any other party because it can’t pick a winner, and doesn’t want a repeat of 2010 when it talked Cameron up only for large parts of the electorate to remain unimpressed. There is no high principle involved, just the small matter of its own credibility. Murdoch’s favourite title has bottled it. The editorial is just a smokescreen of waffle.
But it sounds good to the unwary, and helps shift papers, so that’s all right, then.