On dead cats, shock and awe, and cock-ups

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Number 102: Convincing your opponents you’re a political genius

British politics is awash with dead cats at the moment. Everything from the cost of Johnson’s No Deal information campaign to Rees-Mogg’s grammar guide for Parliamentary staff is supposedly one of them, a carefully designed ploy to get attention and distract people from talking about The Real Issues. (A “dead cat strategy” is the analogy of disrupting a discussion by throwing a dead cat on the table to take everyone’s attention away from the topic at hand)

It’s an assumption that there’s some guiding hand behind all this, that it’s not just the random noise generated by Johnson and his outriders moving into their new roles and offices but a carefully planned out strategy to control the debate in the media and on social media. Somewhere, the theory goes, someone has decided that a carefully timed leaking of these dead cat stories will distract all attention from the important matters allowing them to sneak through their dastardly plans while attention is elsewhere.

There’s an alternative explanation though: they’re just a bunch of arseholes, and arseholes gonna arsehole.

What we’re seeing isn’t some carefully worked-out masterplan with meticulously crafted distraction strategies to keep us all distracted with fripperies. Rather, it’s a crude attempt at shock and awe from a group of chancers who’ve pushed their luck and been unbelievably successful. They’re people who’ve had plenty of big ideas and shared them amongst themselves with ill-earned braggadocio but don’t have much idea at how to deliver them except by shouting out about how good their plan is in the hope someone with a clue will swing in behind them and do the hard work.

Shock and awe is a military tactic where one force seeks to win a conflict quickly by establishing a rapid dominance over the battlefield and demonstrating it to demoralise their opponents. The idea is that by proving their strength at the very outset of a conflict, a force can make their opponents think they’re facing such overwhelming odds that they effectively give up there and then, deciding that there’s no point in fighting when defeat is inevitable.

In a political context, shock and awe is just the tactic one would expect from an incoming government — especially one with a precarious majority facing the likelihood of an election within months. The plan is to show that they’re in control, that they’ve got a plan (both for Brexit and everything else), and all we need to do is believe in them and support them to ensure they can deliver. The plan, I would expect is a whole series of events and policy announcements for the next few weeks, making use of the time when Parliament’s in recess and the Government really can dominate the narrative, likely culminating in the Conservative Party Conference as a great rally to prove the inevitability of their dominance to their nation. The circumstance may be unique, but the strategy is an old-fashioned one that many other governments have tried, and some succeeded with — look in charge, look competent and able to deliver, and hope that’s going to work with enough of the public to pull off a victory.

The last thing you want in this sort of strategy, though, is any dead cats because the purpose of a dead cat strategy is get people talking about anything other than the main news and issues of the day. Shock and awe wants to overwhelm you, and it can’t if you’re not paying attention to the display of power because something relatively minor has caught your eye. A dead cat is something you keep in your pocket for when things are going badly, not something you plan to wheel out at a set point in time. Indeed, the last thing a government or party trying project the image of being the new masters of the political universe, destined to win and be in control, wants is to be seen as a government that produces dead cats.

Sometimes an arsehole is just an arsehole and a cock-up is just a cock-up. Arguing that the government and the Tory Party have planned everything and that they’re all part of some grand plan is to assign them a level of political omnipotence and competence that they don’t come anywhere near to possessing but would be very happy to pretend they possess. Don’t assume your opponent is playing some game of multi-dimensional chess when they’re actually failing badly at a game of snakes and ladders.

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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