Early in February, a leading Brexiteer MP (Jacob Rees-Mogg MP) delivered a Daily Express petition to No 10 calling for an end to “foreign aid madness” – an event that gathered virtually no publicity. Why should it have? Jacob Rees-Mogg knows very little, and cares less about international development. The story died. A new element was needed to inflame opposition to Britain’s foreign aid budget. Thus began the search for a six-year old OXFAM sex scandal, which fitted the framing of ‘foreign aid madness’ quite nicely. The Daily Express’s hated rival and fellow traveller on BREXIT, the Daily Mail, grabbed the salacious facts of OXFAM’s Haitian debacle. Within no time, hysteria was unleashed on the British public.
Since then other charity scandals have surfaced and been used to flame the fires of outrage and opposition to foreign aid spending by government. Then last week in a bizarre development, Jeremy Corbyn was accused of being an informant thirty years ago by a former Czech spy who worked for the secret police during the Cold War. The accuser, according to the Independent, has also “claimed to have personally organised the Live Aid concern (sic) in 1985, which he said was “funded by Czechoslovakia”.” A claim which should sow seeds of doubt about the fellow’s integrity. But the Prime Minister has taken him at his word, and demanded that Corbyn be “open” about these allegations.
What do these outbursts tell us about the state of British politics today? I may be biased of course, but would like to take a guess: the Brexiteers are losing public support, and, even though that loss is not significant, they are beginning to panic.
To understand better what may be happening let us be reminded of the “dead cat strategy” as outlined by Boris Johnson in 2013 – a strategy devised by an Australian “friend’.
“Let us suppose” wrote Johnson in The Spectator, “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.”
There you have it. The British cabinet is deeply divided on Brexit. Big Business has been showing up at No 10 and warning of severe economic damage to British jobs and investment. The economic “facts are overwhelmingly against” Brexit. The political facts are even more difficult. Brexit poses an existential threat to the coherence of the United Kingdom. 56% of Northern Irish voters voted to Remain. Brexit may well force them to leave the UK and fulfil Sinn Fein’s dream of a united Ireland. Scotland would demand another independence referendum. And Brexit threatens Britain’s sovereignty over Gibraltar. The political facts too, are overwhelmingly against Brexit.
So what better moment to throw a dead cat on to the table?
Without minimising the gravity of these scandals, it is possible to argue that they are being used to distract attention from the harm that “the overwhelming facts” against BREXIT are doing to BREXIT. It is not impossible for despairing Brexiteers like Boris Johnson to turn to an Australian “mate” for advice on how to deal with the growing opposition to the government’s BREXIT strategy.
We should be cheered, not depressed by these events. The public have slowly begun to express reservations about BREXIT. The shift amongst those saying we were wrong to vote leave is not large at all, and as YouGov warns, “people who think Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU do not necessarily think the referendum result should be reversed.” The five most recent polls, however, show 43% saying we were right to vote to leave and 45% saying we were wrong. By contrast, on average the first five polls of this year saw 46% saying we were right to leave and 42% wrong.
But that shift is enough to cause Brexiteers to panic. There can be only one conclusion. Remainers must be winning the argument.
There can be no other explanation for the appearance of that dead cat.