Friday, 30 August 2019

Of dead cats and trial balloons...

Dead cat: Apparently coined by political strategist, Lynton Crosby, it is something said or done to draw attention away from unpleasant news.

Trial balloon: A project, scheme or idea that is tentatively announced to test the reaction. 

There is nothing particularly new about dead cats or trial balloons, but in the last few months, we've had enough dead cats dropped on us to fill a Stephen King novel and the sky is so full of trial balloons, everyone has received an online petition about it from Greenpeace.

Basically, the government wants to know how far it can go, exactly how strong is our appetite for assorted populist, right-leaning policies and how loud and effective are the dissenters. And when something awful is happening, a diversion will be created.

The two most obvious trial balloons of recent months were flown by the chronically misnamed Centre for Social Justice,

A think-tank, led by Iain Duncan Smith, floated the idea of increasing the age when the state pension can be accessed, to 75. The CSJ put the proposal forward and it wasn't long before it was howled down by many. It was a bold move for a conservative think-tank led by a Tory politician, considering the reliance by the Conservative Party on older voters.

IDS himself spluttered out a tweet which made a valiant attempt to put a positive spin on a policy that would make many a tired, overworked voter furious:

"Removing barriers for older people to working longer has the potential to improve health and wellbeing, increase retirement savings and ensure the full functioning of public services for all."

Never mind that this policy would lead to many people placing further strain on public services, such as the NHS, because they've worked long after their bodies have started begging for a rest. As if he cares about that - it's all about saving money on the state pension, the biggest proportion of the welfare bill.

A 75 retirement age was never government policy and may never happen, but the reaction to the balloon was probably very instructive for the government.

The other trial balloon from the CSJ was to urge Home Secretary Priti Patel to make the minimum wage for visa applicants £36,700, effectively eliminating people from coming to work in the UK in most nursing, teaching, hospitality and aged care jobs. Despite the obvious labour shortages that such a policy would create pretty quickly, particularly with an ageing population (but, hey, maybe we can look forward to a country where the average care home worker is over 70...), this idea seemed to be a bit more popular, particularly with anti-immigration voters who are being courted by the Conservative Party, lest the Brexit Party parks too many more tanks on the manicured Tory lawns. 

I'm sure it has given Priti Patel much food for thought - and I wouldn't be surprised if she finds it rather tasty indeed.

Of course, both trial balloons caused insta-outrage across social media, even though neither was actually government policy. That said, awful ideas should be challenged loudly because complacent acceptance can be taken as consent.

Meanwhile, dead cats have been distracting us particularly in recent times. The two most obvious dead cats are the ridiculous Jacob Rees-Mogg issuing a ridiculous style guide for his staff to use in written correspondence, and Boris Johnson absurdly claiming he paints wooden buses as a hobby.

While the country was generally united in saying "What a dickhead!" in regard to the Rees-Mogg style guide, Boris Johnson was getting his arse handed to him in Brussels over his delusional rhetoric about negotiating a whole new deal before Halloween. It was probably around then that he realised he had all the negotiating power of a kitten trying to wrest a zebra steak off a lion and started investigating proroguing parliament - or asking Dominic Cummings to look into it for him, because Johnson is essentially a lazy bugger. Negotiation has never been his strong suit.

And Johnson's own dead cat - the admission that he makes model buses from old wine crates for fun - was possibly a work of evil genius. Anyone who seriously thinks Boris Johnson paints model buses in between his busy schedule of shagging, abusing exclamation marks in official letters, farting, spilling red wine on sofas and bellowing bumper sticker slogans instead of answering journalists' questions properly, is either naive or stupid. There is a theory that he was advised, possibly by a digitally savvy member of his team, to confess to this dorky hobby so that whenever someone Googles something like "Boris Johnson bus", the demonstrably dishonest red bus of the EU referendum campaign drops off the search engine's top results

Sure enough, I just Googled "Boris Johnson bus" and the first page spat out three model bus stories and three videos on this story at the top. The image search results still lead with Johnson standing in front of the bus promising an extra £350 million a week to the NHS if we leave the EU, but the search results are certainly less embarrassing than they were before that story broke.

As a bonus for Boris Johnson, while everyone was saying: "Model buses? Really?", the heat died down around the story about his row with girlfriend Carrie Symonds, in which the police were called to her flat. 

Johnson is not afraid to look silly. Indeed, his ludicrous persona has helped him get so far with minimal challenge, so pretending to make buses from wine crates is a minor example of buffoonery compared to his litany of contrived wackiness. His whole manufactured eccentric schtick is possibly the biggest dead cat of them all.

And the biggest trial balloon of them all? The one that could rival the movie Up for its house-lifting properties? Proroguing parliament, of course. This is a classic example of Johnson, with the able assistance of Cummings, seeing what they can get away with. It was so easy. He knew the Queen was not going to tell him to fuck off. 

A much-longer-than-average prorogation of five weeks may only mean a few less sitting days in the House of Commons, because of the party conference recess, but for Johnson, it reduces the time for proper parliamentary debate, and further scrutiny is shut down as the House of Lords and all select committees must close under prorogation. This is sinister. If Theresa May tried to do this to force the passing of her EU deal, there would be outrage across the political spectrum, no doubt with plenty of sexist abuse thrown in for good measure. If a Labour government pulled this stunt, the accusations of Stalinist tactics would fly thick and fast.

But already Brexiters are accusing remainers of panicking over a little shut-down and gleefully celebrating the fact that the prorogation makes a no-deal Brexit on October 31 more likely. The trial balloon is having the desired effect. Dominic Cummings is playing a blinder and we'll probably all be poorer for it.

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