U.K.’s Sun Sets on Brussels in Endorsement Seen as Bellwether

The Sun Urges U.K. to Vote 'Leave' on June 23
  • Tabloid urges voters to ‘Be-LEAVE in Britain,’ quit EU
  • Top-selling paper’s call for Brexit a blow to Cameron

If “It’s the Sun Wot Won It,” as the U.K.’s largest-circulation newspaper said of the country’s 1992 elections, then campaigners against European Union membership have a new reason to celebrate after recent poll gains.

The tabloid paper, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., on Tuesday urged readers to vote to leave the E.U. in the U.K.’s referendum next week. The paper, known for pictures of scantily clad “Page 3 girls,” pulled no punches in a front-page editorial headlined “BeLEAVE in Britain.”

“We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels,” it wrote. “Throughout our 43-year membership of the European Union it has proved increasingly greedy, wasteful, bullying and breathtakingly incompetent in a crisis.”

The reach of the Sun, which had a circulation of more than 3 million for most of the last four decades, has waned in recent years as readers have shifted to digital news outlets, with sales sliding to about 1.7 million in April. But the paper has been an accurate weather vane for British political sentiment, endorsing the winning side in every U.K. general election since 1979, when it backed the Conservative Party candidate, Margaret Thatcher, for prime minister.

“There is a widespread belief that the Sun leads public opinion,” said Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor at the University of Kent. “It doesn’t. What it does brilliantly is follow public opinion.”

The paper’s positioning in favor of a so-called Brexit “suggests overwhelmingly that Britain is going to vote to leave the EU,” he said.

Opinion polls have shown a shift in favor of the “Leave” campaign over recent days, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron and the opposition Labour leaders to redouble their push to keep the country in the 28-nation bloc.

Murdoch has long been known for euroskeptic views, and the Sun in 1990 excoriated European Commission President Jacques Delors with the headline “Up Yours Delors.”

After supporting the Conservatives and John Major in 1992, the Sun switched its allegiance to Tony Blair’s Labour Party, before breaking with Labour in the runup to the 2010 election, when it switched back to the Conservatives. But the Sun’s loyalty to Cameron, who has been campaigning against Brexit, stopped short of Brussels.

While the Sun has competed with other tabloids, especially the Express, to outdo each other with anti-Brussels screeds, some other U.K. newspapers may have a harder time formulating an opinion on Brexit, Luckhurst said.

The tabloid Mirror, for example, generally sides with Labour, but that party’s pro-Brussels stance has been complicated by its opposition to Cameron’s Conservatives.

“A lot of papers may end up saying, ‘It’s a historic vote; use your mandate wisely,’ ” Luckhurst said.

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