OPINION - Westminster is alight with intrigue over the sale of the Telegraph and Spectator

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

If you don’t vote Tory, it is unlikely you will care about the somewhat anxious mood within the SW1 offices of the famous Spectator magazine, once edited by Boris Johnson. Or understand the sense of hopeful uncertainty buzzing around the offices of the “Torygraph” newspaper in Victoria. But to many in the Conservative heartlands, Wednesday’s announcement that both publications were up for sale meant WhatsApps began buzzing with gossip and intrigue.

The Telegraph Media Group and The Spectator have been forced into receivership after the holding company of both, owned by the billionaire Barclay family, failed to successfully renegotiate their loan of millions of pounds dating back to the financial crash. Despite the rude financial health and growing subscription base of both the legacy news brands, their immediate future hangs in the balance, as much as the political party they support. Rumours of financial concern at their parent company had been rife for weeks.

In May, the chairman of the Daily Telegraph and Telegraph Media Group, the amiable Aidan Barclay, told the High Court that a bitter £100 million divorce fight between his uncle and aunt was “not good for the family”. Barclay went on to deny that he and his brother Howard, who now control the Barclay empire, had cut off finances to his uncle since 2019. But tellingly, he also admitted: “Things have been difficult since then.”

On Wednesday, those “difficulties” Barclay was alluding to became strikingly clear. Who will bid the £600 million required to win ownership is being hotly debated in Fleet Street and Westminster. Will the new proprietor share the same Right-wing Tory values — pro-Brexit, firmly anti-woke — that both institutions have until now supported? Right-wingers are concerned, though the Barclays have not yet given up the fight. One Telegraph employee noted the consensus within the staff was that the sale “could be good news… depends of course, on who buys it. Someone far sighted and in love with the media would be nice”. There won’t be a problem among the executive staff if the pro-Brexit, Right-wing tone softens — you would be pushed to find a hardened Tory in the building outside of its columnists. Its loyal readers, however, might feel a bit miffed.

The Spectator is unlikely to change political direction — its success has long been down to its naughty, insider societal spin on the Tory community and Westminster. It is the armchair bible of the red-trouser brigade and the go-to read for political intellectuals. Highly influential, its summer party is normally attended by half the Cabinet.

Many politicians, including Johnson, graduated to Westminster and high office after editing its pages (during Johnsn’s tenure it began jokingly to be referred to as the “Sextator”, owing to the number of sex scandals connected with the magazine under his editorship). No new proprietor would be foolish enough to dabble with its DNA.

One name is immediately doing the rounds, that of hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall, a long-time Tory supporter who donated £100,000 to the Leave campaign. He part-funds the media upstart UnHerd, currently run by Freddie Sayers, as well as GB News. “Paul Marshall is the logical choice,” one colleague messages. “He’s rich, clever, and Right-wing.” If so, Oxford-educated Sayers, who has been the driving force behind UnHerd’s recent success, could soon become a very big media player indeed if Sir Paul turns Fleet Street kingmaker.

There is always the chance The Spectator, founded in 1828 (and known affectionately as The Speccie) is sold separately to TMG. Any number of private family wealth funds, Saudis or Qataris could take a punt, leaving a far bigger media business to snap up TMG.

One such company could be Axel Springer, Europe’s largest media and tech publisher — and owner of Politico, whose “Playbook” Westminster email is must-read for anyone within SW1. The Telegraph hardly sits on the fence on many issues, especially Brexit. The irony if a European company takes over.

The Telegraph is used to powerful, charismatic proprietors. The Barclay brothers — the late Sir David and Sir Fredrick — first acquired the newspapers in 2004 in a £665 million deal from Conrad Black, who was sentenced to 42 months in jail in 2010 for fraud in the US. But given the current upward trajectories of both publications, their long-term future looks bright. Their readers, however, will be wishing the same could be said of the Conservative Party.

Where’s that US deal then, Brexiteers?

It is good to see the tech-bro element of Rishi Sunak come to the fore, especially in Washington — even if he was over-eager to burnish his credentials, insisting the UK was going to lead the world in tech regulation. This has been reduced to London hosting an AI Summit in the autumn, with Joe Biden promising the Americans will attend. Meanwhile the EU and US continue their separate regulation. The other reason many of his team have been noisily pushing messaging on AI and technology around the Washington visit is because despite all the bullish celebration of a “new partnership”, closer co-operation on green energy and the “Atlantic Declaration” — and these are fine achievements — there is still no sign of the new free trade agreement Brexiteers brazenly swore would be signed. If anything, we are further behind in the queue. Still, if there is one thing us Brits truly excel in, it’s waiting in a queue.

Ed Norton is the sexy, green star we need

Let’s face it, it is challenging to make the future of ride-sharing and corporate sustainability goals even vaguely glamorous or alluring. But Uber somehow managed it yesterday morning at Bafta in Piccadilly without even trying. First up was chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who growled gently to the crowd: “The world is absolutely not going green fast enough… We have got to make it easy to go green; make it effortless.” I was sold.

Next up was biodiversity expert Edward Norton. Yes, the actor. Who also happens to be highly informed and earnestly hopeful we can save our planet. Move over DiCaprio, sustainability has new sex symbols. And not a moment too soon.