Whisper it, but is Geordie Greig about to change the tone of Brexit Britain?

Westminster watchers were wondering whether David Davis would quit the cabinet today, but as it stands the Brexit secretary’s story has not been the most politically significant piece of employment news around.

Last night, Paul Dacre announced he is stepping down after 26 years at the helm of the Daily Mail and the frontrunner to replace him, Geordie Greig, editor of the Mail on Sunday, represents an altogether more interesting prospect for both Theresa May and Brexit. 

November is when Dacre will leave his post, meaning that at the critical moment of the Brexit tale – when the deal and Ms May’s government could stand or fall – Paul Dacre will not be the editor of the Daily Mail.

The loss to the Brexit cause as the slog towards EU withdrawal enters its final lap, has not gone unnoticed by those trying to carry the UK across the finishing line.

One Conservative told The Independent after the news broke: “Dacre’s Mail is the standard bearer for Brexit and what it stands for.

“So it would be silly to deny that Brexit isn’t potentially losing one of its greatest champions.”

If the paralysed government of Brexit Britain is, at least to his critics, Dacre’s political legacy, are we about to see a successor replace him at the Mail who might take a different course?

Among those long-mooted names are Tony Gallagher, editor of The Sun and former Mail deputy editor. But the suggestion that a decision on who will replace him has already been taken, and will be announced quickly, has led some to believe the powers that be have found his replacement close to home.

That puts the spotlight on MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke perhaps, or the acolytes who have joined the Dacre team over the years, including deputy editors Ted Verity and Gerard Greaves.

Greig, something of a nemesis to Dacre, is the only one of the frontrunners from Derry Street – where the group’s offices are – to have previously led a paper, and in doing so he chose to oppose Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum. 

He directed the Mail on Sunday to campaign strongly for a Remain vote, a decision said to have gone down like a cup of warm Turkish chardonnay in the office next door.

Dacre has been more than one of the most powerful and controversial editors in Fleet Street history, not to mention among the most inescapable and feared forces in British politics.

Many credit him with holding back the British left, fomenting fear of immigration and railroading Brexit through the UK’s political landscape. 

Jacob Rees Mogg MP told The Independent: “Paul Dacre has the remarkable ability of keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion and shows this in his support for Brexit.” 

It was the Daily Mail of Dacre and its emphasis on anti-immigration stories in the run up to the referendum that helped that issue supersede the economy, as the major theme at a pivotal moment in the campaign.

One Tory told The Independent this morning of Dacre’s reign: “The Mail is Brexit’s attack dog. For some of its opponents it has been the agent of death.

“Look what happened to David Cameron.”

In 2015 and early 2016 the then-prime minister had tried to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU, and came back with an agreement allowing the UK to withhold benefits from European migrants – a deal the Mail derided as “The Great Delusion”. Getting personal, its editorial said that Cameron’s own “capacity for self-delusion is breathtaking”.

The ex-prime minister had “promised nothing less than a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe.

“How woefully that contrasts with the footling, pedantic and almost certainly ineffective reforms he now trumpets.”

One disputed story that emerged a year ago suggested that as that particular editorial was going to press, Cameron met the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, and asked him to sack Dacre.

Rothermere, a resident of France and himself said to have been pro-EU, was a personal friend of Cameron, but this appeal made no difference. 

In the end, Dacre’s coverage helped nail the lid on the coffin of Cameron’s deal, which became so toxic it was subsequently ignored by Remainers in the ensuing referendum campaign – even those in Downing Street promptly forgot it existed.

Since the referendum, the Mail has demanded Theresa May “Crush the Saboteurs” of Brexit and declared that judges who upheld a decision preventing her from unilaterally triggering Article 50 were “Enemies of The People”.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Dacre would have taken heart at the Daily Telegraph’s decision to brand MPs who rebelled in one vote against the government as the “Brexit Mutineers”.

In his resignation statement, Dacre thanked Lord Rothermere for giving him the freedom to edit without interference, but now that he is moving upstairs – to become “chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers” – insiders speculate that the Mail’s owner may seize the opportunity to smooth the paper’s harsher edges.

It is little wonder that Dacre, a man who slavishly wooed the villages and county towns of middle-England, often clashed with the editor of his paper’s sister publication, the Mail on Sunday.

Greig was once dubbed “Britain’s best-connected man” when he was the editor of the high-society magazine Tatler.

And when the Mail on Sunday came out in favour of Remain, it attacked those who had most fervently pushed for Brexit as having peddled a “dangerous illusion”.

“So eager are they for a divorce that they are prepared to sacrifice a large chunk of our income, and trade down on living conditions, in order to walk out into a rose-tinted future of ‘freedom’,” said the paper’s editorial.

With falling newspaper sales and a tighter advertising environment, the prospect of rationalising operations by shifting to a seven-day operation under one editor, might also be an attractive prospect to Lord Rothermere’s accountants.

Whoever takes over at the Mail in November will also have to walk a fine line between pleasing a pro-Brexit readership and an anti-Brexit proprietor, without the years of capital Dacre had accrued that allowed him to easily ignore pressure from upstairs. 

They will also take over at a critical moment in the Brexit saga. While the final deal was meant to be agreed in October, that now looks increasingly unlikely, given that the UK’s cabinet is unable to agree what kind of future relations to have with Europe, and that all the options being discussed have already been rejected by Brussels anyway.

Talk is now of the negotiations extending into December and the new year, despite the Article 50 period, after which British membership ends, running out in March.

Sensing the shifting sands, a key ally of Angela Merkel and president of Germany’s Bundestag, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, has said in the last 24 hours that the UK would likely be granted an extension of Article 50 if it asked for one.

The prime minister is already probably looking back wistfully on the Mail’s front pages, depicting her as an insurmountable political force. Today, even before Dacre is out of the door, the paper’s editorial said her administration looked “rudderless”.

As the new editor arrives the Brexit thumbscrews will be tightening, the divisions in the Conservatives widening and political criticism reaching fever-pitch, pressure on May inside her party and in the press is only likely to grow. 

Her faithful spokeswoman said at this morning’s briefing: “The PM congratulates Paul Dacre on a long and distinguished career, in which he was a passionate defender of press freedom, held the feet of six different prime ministers to the fire and fought many great campaigns.”

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