In the final week of the election campaign, Britain’s leading newspapers came out in support of Labour, though the support was not unqualified.

The Financial Times argued in an editorial that it was not yet time for a change of government. While there may be good grounds for some disenchantment with Tony Blair, the Conservatives do not look like a convincing alternative, the paper argued.

The Guardian said that it was sometimes “too easy to overlook the real substance of what Labour has achieved” in recent years and urged its readers to re-elect Labour, but to use tactical voting to increase the Liberal Democrat presence in parliament.

After several weeks of equivocation, the Sun also backed Labour for the third election running. The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper said in an editorial: “It is Tony Blair’s final election and he deserves one last chance to fulfil great promises he keeps making.”

The Times, also owned by Mr Murdoch’s News International, said the best result for Britain would be a smaller, but viable, Labour majority and a larger and renewed Tory opposition.

Media analysts note that News International’s Labour support contrasts with the antipathy at Associated Newspapers, the publishing arm of Daily Mail and General Trust.

DMGT’s flagship title, the Daily Mail, is deeply hostile to Mr Blair, a sentiment shared to a lesser degree by The Telegraph Group - under new ownership following last year’s £665m buy-out by the Barclay brothers.

Obviously fearing Liberal Democrat gains at the expense of the Conservatives, the Daily Telegraph urged its readers not to vote Liberal Democrat to reward the party for its anti-war stance. While “genuflecting to the principles of liberalism”, the party is run by activists whose instincts run in the other direction, the paper warned in an editorial.

“The newspaper industry in Britain is polarising as usual,” according to one former national newspaper editor. “Unlike the US, you broadly know someone’s politics from the newspaper they read and 2005 is proving no exception in the election campaign.” However, as the Mori research suggests, newspapers’ readerships are more diverse than their editorial line. Editorial ambivalence reflects the state of public opinion.

The New Statesman, once considered Labour’s in-house journal, said readers should vote Labour, although it ran a users’ guide on how to vote tactically against Blairite candidates, underlining the extent of disenchantment with Tony Blair’s government among the Labour-supporting press.

It is a far cry from 1997 when Mr Blair swept to power on a popular anti-Conservative wave that had engulfed much of Fleet Street.

As John Curtice, professor of politics at University of Strathclyde, has pointed out: during the 1997 campaign twice as many people were reading a paper that backed Labour than in 1992.

In the last election Labour faced tougher scrutiny from the press than in 1997 but won the endorsement of more newspapers. Since then Mr Blair has received an increasingly hostile press as disillusionment and in some cases anger has set in.

Even taking in to account that it is still early in the campaign for newspapers to issue endorsements, there is deep equivocation among editorial boards of the Labour-supporting press.

The Daily Express, having backed Labour in 2001, turned against Mr Blair last year, in a coup for the Tories. The Sunday Express was the only Sunday newspaper to urge its readers to vote Conservative.

On the weekend before the election, Tony Blair won the support of most of the Sunday newspapers. The Observer, the News of the World, the People and the Sunday Mirror threw their weight behind Labour.

The Independent may become the first national newspaper to line up behind Charles Kennedy. Nearly half of its readers voted Liberal Democrat in the 2001 election and the paper sponsored the Lib Dem annual conference last year. The Independent has been fiercely critical of the Iraq war and Mr Blair’s closeness to the White House. However, some of its senior journalists believe it would be a commercial mistake to back the smallest party.

Reflecting this division, the Independent on Sunday gave its support to the Liberal Democrats “where they can win”, and Labour, rather than the Conservatives, in seats where the Liberal Democrats cannot win.

The Sunday Times urged readers to vote Conservative to curb Labour’s arrogance, but noted that it seemed unlikely that the party could win, bacause of its failure “to offer an alternative vision the country needs”.

How important press endorsements are to election results is a moot point, despite The Sun’s braggadocio in 1992, when it was The Sun “wot won” it for John Major.

Do newspapers change the way people vote or do people buy newspapers that chime with their views? “What matters for us in elections is not ‘what the Sun says’ but how they set the agenda,” said one Labour MP close to News International. He pointed out to a Sun feature on immigration yesterday, listing Labour’s successes.

The Daily Mirror may have harmed Mr Blair’s re-election prospects with its highly critical stance on the Iraq war despite a strong election endorsement for Labour this week.

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