Labour ministers and activists rallied round Gordon Brown yesterday after he lost the support of The Sun, with deputy leader Harriet Harman telling the newspaper: “We won’t be bullied.”
Union leader Tony Woodley won cheers from delegates at the party’s Brighton conference by angrily tearing up a copy of The Sun on-stage.
The tabloid’s switch to the Conservatives – announced yesterday morning under the headline “Labour’s lost it” – cast a shadow over the fourth day of the gathering, where ministers followed up manifesto pledges from Brown with fresh policies of their own to win back voters.
In a series of sometimes tetchy TV interviews yesterday, Brown sought to downplay the impact of losing The Sun’s backing; 12 years after Tony Blair successfully wooed it into supporting Labour.
The PM insisted voters would be attracted by the raft of new policies he unveiled, including free home care for the elderly, a maximum one-week wait for cancer tests, hostels for teenage mums and a crackdown on drunken yobbery.
Brown’s Cabinet lieutenant Lord Mandelson revealed he was informed of the paper’s defection by News International bosses including chief executive Rebekah Brooks at a reception hosted by the publisher in Brighton on Tuesday night and told them they were being “a bunch of chumps”.
“I don’t think the readers want The Sun to set on New Labour,” said the business secretary. “The last thing Sun readers want is to see their newspaper turned into a Tory fanzine.”
He later risked inflaming the row further by telling an event on the fringe of the conference that “losers” were choosing The Sun.
Asked whether the newspaper was merely attaching itself to winners, he drew gasps and laughter from his audience by replying: “I think that just as they may think they are picking winners, I think probably the losers are picking them.”
Woodley, joint chief executive of union Unite, reflected the anger of many Labour delegates as he tore up a copy of the paper and urged the rest of the country to do the same.
“We don’t need an Australian-American coming to our country with a paper that has never supported any progressive policies from our party, including the minimum wage, telling us how politics should be run in this country,” he said.
Harman began her keynote conference speech with a message to delegates not to be disheartened: “We are all angry about The Sun this morning but I say to you: don’t get bitter, get better. Don’t get outraged, get out there. Don’t get mad, get mobilised.
“Yes, we may be the underdog but we will not be bullied. This underdog is biting back.”
Labour’s former communications supremo Alastair Campbell suggested the move could even be good for Labour, writing on his blog: “It should actually help the feeling of fighting back that has finally been around this week.”
Recalling the paper’s famous “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” headline following the 1992 election, he added: “If Labour lose, it will not be The Sun wot lost it.”
Tory leader David Cameron welcomed the paper’s support, telling LBC Radio: “I think they have seen the government is exhausted and out of ideas and they see a regenerated, refreshed conservative party ready to serve.”
Brown also revealed he has made his mind up over whether to take on Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in a televised debate – but said he would not announce his decision until nearer the election.
The fallout from the Sun’s switch of allegiance even extended as far as their agony aunt last night when she was forced to pull out of a fringe meeting.
Deidre Sanders, who writes the Dear Deidre column, had been due to speak alongside schools secretary Ed Balls at an event about relationship breakdowns – although their impact on children rather than ministers.
But the audience were informed that she would not be taking part “for diplomatic reasons” and were read a note from her saying staying away “was thought best” in the circumstances.