OWhen all else fails, send in the big guns. Or rather pretend. In the 1997 American satire Wag the Dog, a devious president invents a fictional war with Albania to distract voters from an embarrassing sex scandal. And by unabashedly unleashing a patriotic storm, he almost gets away with it.
While Boris Johnson has thankfully refrained from declaring war, he appears to be offering wavering Tory voters the next best thing: Operation Red Meat, involving threats of RAF and Navy deployments against migrant boats in the English Channel, along with a few BBC rituals- bashing and seasoning other hisses designed to buy embattled prime minister time. Presumably, he wants Daily Express readers to have the vague impression that Britain is ready, if not quite to bomb refugees to France, at least to up the ante. Like the rest of Operation Red Meat, however, this one smells like something past its expiration date.
The plan, as far as it can be called, is to deploy military assets to track small boats crossing the English Channel and escort them ashore for processing, but then move the actual processing to a location less attractive than the ‘England. (The last time this plan surfaced must have been Albania, until the Albanians announced that it was the first time they had heard of it; now Rwanda and Ghana are on the way. )
The idea of militarizing Britain’s response to terrified refugees will of course be offensive and distressing to many. But the twist of the story for his target audience of grassroots conservative voters is that if it works as expected, it could, at least, make the crossing safer. People are less likely to drown under military escort than to slip ashore unnoticed in the dark. And while the threat of being taken straight to an asylum processing center may deter willing migrants from disappearing onto the black market, it is less clear why the estimated two-thirds of boat passengers , end up successfully applying for asylum fear being drawn into a system they want to enter anyway.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ frontal attack on the BBC, declaring ‘it’s over’ for them before consideration of its future funding has even begun, doesn’t look more thoughtful . Like it or not, there is perhaps an electorally seductive argument to be made that viewers who have decamped to Netflix shouldn’t be forced to pay for channels they don’t watch. But presenting it as an overtly political attack on the BBC only stirs up irritation, making any subsequent legislation less likely to make it through the House of Lords. Or to put it another way, what a Johnson government promises may not be what a Johnson government actually delivers, which is what we should all be used to by now.
As stimulus plans roll in, this one is a hastily crafted classic of the genre; throw a few wretches in the back of the sled and give the newspapers something else to tell. Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds is emerging as the likely dropout for the May 2020 garden party the Prime Minister claims he didn’t realize was a party; and since Reynolds sent out the invitation asking the staff to bring a bottle, his position seems increasingly untenable. But it remains hard to believe that a seasoned Whitehall civil servant, who had worked with Johnson in the Foreign Office before No 10, somehow went rogue behind his back. Should we really believe that Johnson, this innocent well known in these cases, was led astray by the party animal Sir Humphrey? And to think that the Conservatives used to complain that public servants were fools.
The new political agenda, meanwhile, not only crumbles when pushed, but lacks a compelling reason for Johnson himself to lead it. There are things, even now, that only Johnson can do; parts of the country only he can reach, emotional registers only he can hit, bets so crazy only he can get away with it. But does a Tory voter eager to see these things pass really imagine that Liz Truss couldn’t send the gunboats, or that Rishi Sunak wouldn’t watch the BBC’s funding? Unlike Brexit, these aren’t concepts requiring Johnson’s magic touch to bring them to life, and they don’t even sound convincingly like his idea.
If Operation Red Meat is a strategy to survive only the next few days, rather than the next few years, then right now may be the best an office full of people fearing being fired can handle. If they can just hang on long enough – and Theresa May has been hanging on longer than seemed possible, as her chief tormentor Johnson no doubt reminds us – then the splinter could well come off potential successors in between. time. Truss can overplay his hand, or Sunak be tarnished by the cost of living crisis. As long as Tory voters tell pollsters they’re moving to ‘don’t know’ rather than directly to Labor, there’s always a chance of winning them back.
But not with a plan that sounds like it could have been scribbled on the back of a pack of cigarettes after a particularly busy “wine time” session, and not with a leader who still doesn’t seem to understand why people are so upset. anger. It’s not the lack of red meat on the menu. That’s not how the kitchen works. It’s because they no longer believe the chief.