from the sheer-genius-or-dumb-luck? dept
Boris Johnson — full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — was born in New York to English parents, studied at Eton and Oxford, became Mayor of London, and now stands a good chance of becoming the UK’s next prime minister. That’s not because of any outstanding ability, but largely because he belongs to the country’s ruling class and assumes the position is his by right, as do many of his supporters. However, this smooth if completely unearned rise to the top of the UK’s political system was threatened recently by an unexpected event. Police were called in the early hours to the London home of Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, after neighbors heard “a loud altercation involving screaming, shouting and banging“:
The argument could be heard outside the property where the potential future prime minister is living with Symonds, a former Conservative party head of press.
A neighbour told the Guardian they heard a woman screaming followed by “slamming and banging”. At one point Symonds could be heard telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.
Despite repeated questions by interviewers, Johnson refused to comment on the incident, which naturally provoked yet more interest. Johnson’s chances of becoming prime minister seemed to be dropping by the hour. And then came an interview with talkRADIO, in which Johnson was asked: “What do you do to relax?” He replied:
I like to paint. Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus.
So I put passengers — I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus — low carbon, of the kind that we brought to the streets of London, reducing CO2, reducing nitrous oxide, reducing pollution.
As the Guardian reported, this surreal answer blew people’s minds, and a variety of reasons were offered for this bizarre response. But Adam Bienkov, UK Political Editor of BusinessInsider, had the best explanation. He reminded people of something that Johnson had written in 2013:
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.
Throwing a dead cat on the dining room table — talking about making models of buses — worked for Johnson. Everyone in the UK press and beyond started talking about the model buses, and the story about the police being called to Johnson’s home was forgotten. That’s impressive enough, but it’s possible that strange moment in the interview may have achieved even more.
One of Boris Johnson’s claims to fame/infamy arose during the deeply-divisive 2016 Brexit referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU. Johnson supported Brexit, and he was photographed in front of the campaign’s big red bus that bore the slogan: “We send the EU £350m a week: let’s fund our NHS [National Health Service] instead”. It was a bogus statement: the true amount sent to the EU is closer to £160 million pounds a week. Johnson’s willingness to endorse that misleading figure is another threat to his claim to be a fit person to become the UK’s new prime minister.
A day after the dead cat was thrown on the table, twitter user @MrKennyCampbell realized that Johnson’s incoherent rambling about model buses was also a Google bomb. Previously, searches for “boris bus” on Google threw up that lie about how much the UK sent to the EU, and Johnson’s tacit agreement with it. Now the same search shows stories about Johnson’s passion for making model buses. References to the big red Brexit bus and its slogan have been pushed off the top Google hits, effectively consigning the story about Johnson to relative digital oblivion.
This is such a brilliant example of political search engine optimization that it’s hard to believe someone as buffoonish as Johnson would be capable of pulling it off intentionally. Nonetheless, whether it was fiendishly clever planning, or an unbelievably lucky improvisation, there’s no denying the episode stands as an object lesson in how to combine the dead cat strategy with a Google bomb to great effect.
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