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The dead cat strategy was invented by the Tories’ election guru Lynton Crosby, but it was explained most clearly by one beneficiary of his dark arts, the then Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson, in one of his typical rants against the EU.
The advice from Johnson’s “Australian friend” was that if you’re losing an argument and people are focussing on a reality that is damaging to you, your best bet was to throw “a dead cat on the table,” 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.”
I was reminded of the dead cat strategy when I heard Health Secretary Matt Hancock join the clamour for top footballers to take a pay cut.
Hancock has, of course, been under constant pressure over the lack of personal protection equipment for front line staff in health and social care and over the slow roll out of testing compared to many other countries.
If it seems a little tribal and partisan to accuse the Health Secretary of employing a Tory gambit, I rely on the new leader Keir Starmer’s affirmation that it can’t be “business as usual” when this is all over.
When it is all over, there will inevitably be a public inquiry. One question that will need to be answered is whether Boris Johnson’s obsession with Brexit took his eye off the Coronavirus ball, during crucial weeks in January.
The complacency in Tory circles is exemplified by the former MEP Daniel Hannan tweeting “the coronavirus isn’t going to kill you, it really isn’t.” Writing on the Conservative Home website, as late as February 19th, he complained of “alarmism, doom mongering and panic.”
Another question, that comes from an investigation by Reuters news agency, is why the Prime Minister’s scientific advisers were so slow to sound the alarm. "As they watched China impose its lockdown, the British scientists assumed that such drastic actions would never be acceptable in a democracy like the UK. Among those modelling the outbreak, such stringent counter-measures were not, at first, examined."
Boris Johnson’s boast in early March, that he had been to a hospital and shaken hands with lots of people, was against a background of dodgy ideas of herd immunity, the slow introduction of social distancing and a failure to implement mass testing, contact tracing or to ensure an adequate supply of ventilators and PPE.
Were the advisers worried they wouldn’t be listened to? That would be no surprise when the prevailing attitude Downing Street had was to deride the civil servants, sack aides for disagreeing, and make former Chancellor Sajid Javid an offer he had to refuse.
Looking to the future, we are entitled to be concerned about a right wing Johnson Cabinet, picked almost exclusively for their devotion to Brexit.
Take Dominic Raab, the stand-in head of government, who was confronted on the Today programme for his record on the NHS. He started with a denial. “I can tell you categorically I've never advocated privatisation of the NHS.” That claim was rebutted by the tenacious Nick Robinson: “The pamphlet talked about hospitals being run by private companies, not florists or coffee shops. It said hospitals. And your name was on it.” The co-authors of the quoted pamphlet included Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom.
Another BBC journalist deserving a mention is Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, who recently set out to debunk the myth that the Coronavirus is a great leveller: “Those serving on the front line - bus drivers, shelf stackers, nurses care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers - are disproportionately the lower paid and they are most likely to get the disease because they are the most exposed.” She added that those who live in tower blocks will find the lock down tougher and manual workers will find it harder to work from home. The programme went on to explore what social settlement would be needed to ensure inequalities in our society don’t become more stark.
The questions are piling up about how we got where we are and how we can create a better future. Most Labour party members and Labour supporters will be overjoyed we now have a leader who looks like a Prime Minister in waiting.