France’s charismatic leader Emmanuel Macron arrived in London last week for talks with the UK government about all things Brexit. A new migrant treaty was signed, old bonds were reaffirmed, selfies were taken and striking a gloomier note, the French President stressed that if the UK financial services industry wanted to preserve access to the EU single market post-Brexit it was welcome to do so – provided it obeyed the bloc’s rules – adding, a little sarcastically “Be my guest.”
You may have missed it. Indeed it is quite likely that you missed everything Monsieur Macron said during his visit, because on the very same day and at the same summit, the UK Foreign Secretary – Boris Johnson proposed the construction of a 22 mile long bridge, linking France and Britain.
Boris Johnson has no authority to green light such a project nor – as Foreign Secretary – is it within his remit. That didn’t stop the press and indeed all of us – embarking on an epic frenzy of what-ifery. Within minutes #BorisBridge was trending on twitter and hacks were taking to their computers, while pundits and architects took calls from radio stations and news producers pushed the story to the top of their programmes. It led the hour on BBC and Sky news for much of the rest of the day.
So unwelcome was this unilateral declaration of architectural intent, that Downing Street at first refused even to comment on the idea – but finally gave in and a weary press secretary revealed there were ‘no plans’ for such a project. Too late – the Boris Bridge was still trending on Saturday morning – you no doubt have an opinion on it, as does your mother, your Uncle Jeffy, your cousin Susan and her dog.
So why did Johnson do this?
There are two possible explanations. Firstly, Johnson’s singular goal is to be Prime Minister. It’s been his ambition for decades. He’s also a politician who lacks imagination in the way that Death Valley lacks moisture. Boris’s Mayoralty was built on a series of faintly hair-brained, very costly but essentially insipid and unfeasible ‘grand projects.’ An ersatz and impractical Routemaster, a cable car that literally went from nowhere to nowhere and the ridiculous Thames estuary airport which would have involved building runways in an area teaming with large wildfowl. A big project could be PM in waiting Boris’s eye catching pitch for the top job
I don’t think that’s what’s at play here.
In fact the Boris Bridge is a classic example of a ‘dead cat strategy,’ a tactic whereby a lurid, crazy or sensationalist idea is thrown into political discourse in order to divert attention away from a more damaging topic. In essence, chuck a dead moggy on the dining room table and everyone is too busy talking about the deceased cat to bother about anything else.
The strategy was deployed very effectively during the EU Referendum – headlines were grabbed and Leave steered the agenda away from the actual subject of our relationship with the EU and onto slogans written on red buses, fishing flotillas sailing down the Thames and the billions of Turkish people who would apparently be pouring into the UK the week after the referendum.
In the case of the Boris Bridge – all attention was diverted away from Macron and his words of warning and onto the conceited and single-minded Johnson. It worked beautifully, not least because the media were entirely complicit. There were no plans for a bridge over the Channel. There is unlikely ever to be a bridge over the Channel. But everyone was talking about the bridge over the Channel. Not a single journalist bothered to stop and think and query the motives behind it – and we all lapped it up.
Does it matter? Yes – it matters absolutely, because there’s what the politicians say and what the politicians are reported to have said and then there’s the real motivation behind it – which is unfortunately left, more and more, both unquestioned and unchallenged. Boris Johnson knows that and he plays it artfully in much the same way that Nigel Farage does. Boris succeeds because the media is, for the most part, so infatuated with him that they are happy to facilitate the ride he is taking you for.
That should make you angry and if it does not then think about it this way – Boris Johnson thinks you are stupid Britain, he holds you in contempt and he has calculated that his tousled mop and winning smile will forgive all ills – don’t be his useful idiots.