There can be an unpleasant smell around politics at the best of times but, this week, the stench of a dead cat has dominated.
Specifically, it’s been the stench of a dead cat lobbed at the media by Boris Johnson and his team to stop them asking awkward questions.
We’ll come back to the dead cat shortly but, first, a little context. On Friday, police were called to reports of a row between Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. As soon as that news hit the media, it dominated coverage.
Next up came the was-it-leaked (of course it was) photo of Johnson and Symonds looking all loved up. It appeared complete with suitable quotes from a ‘confidante’ of the couple.
That was presumably designed to defuse the ‘row story’ and take the heat off Johnson. But the questions wouldn’t go away – was the photo posed, who released it to the media, what was going on here?
Then came Johnson’s bizarre revelation on Tuesday that he makes model buses and enjoys “painting passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus”.
What? Why? For real? Enter dead cat, stage right.
Johnson referred to “throwing a dead cat on the table” in 2013, writing:
“Let us suppose 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.”
Johnson may have written about the dead cat approach but it is straight out of the Lynton Crosby playbook. Crosby was Johnson’s campaign manager for the 2008 and 2012 London mayoral elections and, in 2015, he masterminded David Cameron’s general election triumph in the face of bleak opinion polls.
Crosby is the master of the dead cat. It’s said he talks to Johnson every day, and his business partner Mark Fullbrook has been appointed to add a bit of zing to Johnson’s leadership campaign.
So it’s no surprise that Johnson is deploying the fetid feline as a weapon. What is particularly significant, though, is that its effect can linger long after the initial distraction.
Google ‘Boris and Bus’ and you’ll now have to trawl through a few pages of stories about Boris’s apparent fascination with making models (as well as some stuff about real buses) before you get to a story covering Johnson’s notorious ”£350m for the NHS” bus.
Whether this effect is deliberate or accidental is not really that important. What’s key here is the realisation that the stench of a dead cat story lingers for a long time online, with the potential to mask other, more serous, stories from inquisitive eyes.
Of course, Johnson and Crosby aren’t the only fans of a dead cat – President Trump has an entire abattoir dedicated to churning the things out.
It turns out they are not only useful tools for distracting our collective attention in the short-term, but they also have a half-life, damaging our online sources of information for weeks, months and perhaps years.
That’s right, it turns out dead cats are radioactive. Expect more, and be prepared.
Naomi Smith is CEO of Best for Britain, a political campaign to keep Britain in the EU