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It's not a dead cat!
No, really, it isn't.
Every time the UK Government announces anything, or anyone in it does something, a chorus goes up on political twitter: “it’s a dead cat!” A few weeks ago one of my tweets, unhappy with the Government’s proposal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, went viral. There are hundreds of replies telling me it’s a dead cat. If a cabinet minister gives a car crash interview: dead cat. The Ministry of Defence announces a weapons delivery to Ukraine: dead cat. I can’t take it anymore. It isn’t a dead cat, it’s never a dead cat.
We have our Prime Minister to blame for introducing this dread phrase into the British political lexicon. Back in 2013 Boris Johnson wrote a Telegraph article decrying EU proposals to put caps on bankers’ bonuses:
“To understand what has happened in Europe in the last week, we must borrow from the rich and fruity vocabulary of Australian political analysis. Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.
That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
The “great campaigner” was Lynton Crosby who ran Johnson’s campaigns for London mayor as well as the Conservative election campaign in 2015. (He was also involved in the 2010 election – I met him on that election night where he seemed primarily concerned with ticking Labour MPs who’d personally insulted him off his list as they lost their seats.)
The phrase re-emerged during the 2015 campaign when, a few days in and with things going badly for the Conservatives, Michael Fallon wrote a Times column saying that Ed Miliband wanted to scrap the nuclear deterrent in order to strike a deal with the Scottish National Party. He also offered a particularly brutal quote: “Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”
This probably didn’t change the outcome all that much, if at all, but elections require a narrative and it was seen, in retrospect, as a turning point as the media moved on from Labour’s favoured issue of Tory tax dodging to whether Miliband would, indeed, scrap Trident and do a deal with the SNP. The Tories triumphantly briefed various journalists that this was a textbook example of dead cattery. And from there it stuck, attached to every single thing that ever happens that diverts attention from whatever the user of the term wants everyone to be talking about.
Fallon’s comment was a “dead cat” as it had the following features:
1. It was deliberate (we know because they told us afterwards).
2. It was unpleasant (and untrue) enough to get criticised, which created a lot of attention, but ultimately it advanced a series of points that the Tory campaign wanted aired – including the point about Miliband “knifing his brother” which came up a lot in focus groups.
3. It did not commit the Government to doing anything. There was no content beyond the accusation. Nor did it do any political harm to them.
Almost nothing that has subsequently been called a dead cat meets these criteria. They tend to be either things the Government does actually want to do, like the Rwanda immigration policy, or giving weapons to Ukraine. Or things that are more embarrassing for the Government than the thing from which they need the distraction. When, last November, they made a total hash out of managing Owen Paterson’s Parliamentary censure for corrupt behaviour, lots of people told me this was happening in order to distract from an overblown NHS privatisation story. As if any Government would choose a political scandal that dominated the headlines for days to a minor policy story that barely anyone had noticed.
In fact in the entirety of this Parliament I can think of one thing that might meet the dead cat definition. A week or so into the Paterson farrago, Ben Wallace, who is, like Fallon, Defence Secretary, wrote to Labour and the SNP to complain about three of their MPs getting drunk on a state trip to Gibraltar. It definitely met criteria two, it being striking enough to get attention (and, according to Labour and the SNP, untrue) and criteria three, it didn’t commit the Government to anything, or embarrass them. It was purely an attack on the opposition. Whether it was deliberately done to distract I can only speculate, but I suspect so.
Apart from this I can think of no other examples. Why? Because it’s really quite hard to find accusations that sound true enough to get reported, are striking enough to really distract attention, and don’t rebound on you in any way. On a daily basis there are attack lines against the opposition but they very rarely hit all these marks. Besides, as Johnson said in his Telegraph article, “any campaign strategist will tell you, [a dead cat] won’t work for long.”
The really interesting question is why are people so quick to believe they (or rather their fellow citizens) are being cunningly distracted from the real story at all times? I think there are two main reasons. The first benign, the second less so.
1. People who haven’t worked in politics simply cannot believe how chaotic it is or how hard it is to control the news cycle. Possibly my favourite Dominic Cummings quote is this description of Downing Street:
“You might think somewhere there must be a quiet calm centre, like in a James Bond movie, where you open the door and there is where the ninjas are who actually know what they’re doing. There are no ninjas. There is no door.”
There really are no ninjas. Modern Government is total chaos. Downing Street does, of course, have a comms team, and they do try and control the news cycle, by attemtping to schedule announcements that push forward the Government’s agenda, while batting away negative stories. But it rarely works. Suddenly a policy due to be announced that day has been blocked by the Treasury, or turns out to be illegal, or simply isn’t ready yet. Or a rogue departmental press officer decides to brief something ahead of schedule and now that’s the story. Or a cabinet minister puts out an offensive tweet and you have to deal with that. Or the Mail on Sunday prints a quote from a random anonymous MP being deeply misogynistic about the deputy leader of the opposition…. etc etc…
The idea that you can carefully plan distractions at will is for the birds. Apart from anything else it’s not at all obvious in advance what will become a big story. Lots of things that could do don’t and it’s rarely clear why. And sometimes something apparently very minor will blow up (e.g. Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a sandwich daintily). But our brains are designed to assume there is purpose behind everything we see – if you’re a hunter gatherer and you hear a twig snap it’s a good idea to assume it’s a large animal looking for food, even if it’s just the wind. And unless you’ve been directly involved in politics, it’s really hard to believe how little control anyone has over what happens.
2. The less benign reason is that people *want* to believe that the Government is able to trick people at will because it offers an easy explanation for why they, opponents of the Government, keep losing. Somehow they must be both a bunch of incompetent idiots AND nefarious geniuses able to manipulate the news cycle like a marionette. Because if they were just incompetent idiots, and they keep winning, well that doesn’t reflect very well on us.
The ”dead cat” idea feeds seamlessly into a wider trend of social media era political discourse, whereby your opponents’ success is due to their ability to brainwash all the people without your levels of searing insight. So rather than a hapless Government trying, and failing, to return to their agenda we see a series of deliberate “dead cat” distractions. Instead of a Minister desperately trying to avoid admitting his colleagues have messed up, he is now “gaslighting” us, a term that originally meant deliberate manipulation of reality in order to induce mental breakdown, but is now widely used to refer to ordinary political obfuscation.
These narratives are not the preserve of any particular ideology. Left/liberals routinely ascribe sorcerer-style powers to the right-wing press which is, in fact, in terminal decline (as I noted in a previous piece the combined circulation of the Express/Sun/Mail/Telegraph has fallen below 2.5m from a peak five or six times higher). The right talk darkly about the BBC, Channel 4, universities, schools and so on brainwashing the young into a liberal theocracy.
Of course people are influenced by media and by institutions but the causal relationships are not at all straightforward. Mail readers are more likely to oppose higher immigration than Guardian ones but they don’t all (and Guardian readers don’t all support it). Moreover both groups tend to trend in the same direction even if they don’t start in the same place (i.e. both have become more liberal on this and other issues in recent years).
The reason why so many people prefer to believe in these brainwashing scenarios is that it provides a explanation for disagreement that doesn’t require any serious thought. If people voted for Brexit because of lies, manipulation and propaganda well then there’s no reason to reflect seriously on why Leave won. If Brexit is now unpopular because the BBC liberals are biased, well that means you don’t have to come up with any compelling explanations for why you think it is, in fact, going well.
This is why the endless cries of “dead cat” have driven me to despair. Ironically Boris Johnson’s original Telegraph article made exactly the same lazy mistake that so many of his opponents now make. It was easier for him to dismiss an idea he didn’t like as a deliberate distraction rather than engage with it on its merits. And by assuming bad faith rather than genuine disagreement he could assert that anyone supporting the suggestion had been tricked. Let's not follow his lead.
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