John Crace, sketch writer for the Guardian, reckons that David Cameron let the mask slip at PMQs …..
‘Then came the playground game-changer. In reply to a heckle from Labour’s Angela Eagle about his own mother’s opposition to his welfare cuts, Dave let rip: “I know what my mother would say. I think she’d look across the dispatch box and she’d say: ‘Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’.”
But was it a slip – the Dave he tries to keep under wraps?
I think most people would agree that David Cameron’s sudden outburst was completely unexpected, and did not bear any conceivable relation to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions about the NHS… but then it is hardly the first time over the last 6 years that he has had a bizarre tirade about union-control, threatened national security etc..
As such, it fully corresponds with the Lynton Crosby (the Tory election guru) signature ‘dead cat’ manoeuvre. .. the essence of which Crosby explains:
‘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.’
But it isn’t simply a distraction technique. It is also a technique used in hypnosis. Out of awareness, our brains are constantly predicting what actions, memories, emotions and so on, that we may need to mobilise in the immediate future. This creates a ‘cone of expectation’ which is constantly being updated. A totally unexpected, and preferably an emotionally shocking event (like Derren Brown suddenly jerking your arm up in the air and bending you double) disrupts our brain’s ‘cone of expectation’ and we are left in a state of confusion with our brain desperately trying to recalibrate. In that moment, we are highly suggestible… with our neurotransmitters acting to clear our conscious memory so that we only focus on what may be ‘danger’.
This is all part of the normal fight, flight and freeze response. What it is not, is part of the normal democratic process … let alone PMQs when the Prime Minister is supposed to be answerable to the House of Commons.
The best known example of the ‘dead cat manoeuvre’ was in the 2015 GE campaign, when defence secretary Michael Fallon launched an unexpected, brutal attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband.
“Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”
At this point, some polls had Labour narrowly ahead of the Tories, with Miliband’s pledge to crack down on nondomicile tax avoidance, dominating the headlines. By suggesting that Miliband would scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent, in order to strike an electoral deal with the Scottish National party, Fallon managed to switch media attention away from Labour’s popular policy. And in so doing, he leveraged the defining theme of the 2015 Conservative campaign which was to target Miliband’s perceived weakness as a leader.
So Labour’s tax policy was pushed out of awareness (admittedly with the collusion of the press). And the question was left hanging in the air as to what Fallon ‘knew’ that had prompted his outburst, and the strong implication that Ed M was so desperate to win that he was prepared to roll over and give the SNP whatever they demanded.
I know that this worked psychologically because I wondered myself what was going on… no smoke without a fire etc. Of course, it is now acknowledged that this was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the electorate.
Ordinary btl commentators wrote in response when this underhand strategy was explained by Lynton Crosby himself:
“What is shocking in all of this is how completely unselfconscious the Tories are about feeling no obligation even nod towards reality in their campaigning, let alone propose real solutions.
The sole criterion is “Can we get people to believe this?”
“Crosby explained in detail the contempt with which he manipulated the public. It isn’t just lies, it is psychological techniques, deliberately playing on fears discovered using market research techniques. It works the same way it works to persuade us all to buy new shit all the time and not to make a fuss about a few mega rich Masters of the Universe ruling the world while we toil away making them even richer. Yes they won. That doesn’t make it right.”
Now, to get back to Cameron’s outburst, Paul Waugh writes in the Huffington Post:
‘The curious thing about PMQs was that Cameron and Jeremy Hunt are actually on very shaky ground on the weekend deaths effect (as academics and doctors keep pointing out). And in the FT today, there is an ominous quote from Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ. Godlee, who has been critical of the way the deaths data has been used by politicians, says a new article in the BMJ, expected to appear next week, “will aim to address concerns about political interference in the peer review process and the source of Hunt’s data”.’ http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2016/02/25/the-waugh-zone-february-2_3_n_9313714.html?utm_hp_ref=the-waugh-zone
Curious? Curious?? Not only was Cameron well aware of the shaky ground over the NHS but he also knew that he was vulnerable over his mother (and aunt’s) criticism of cuts to local government. I find it extremely difficult to believe that his tirade was not fully thought out and prepared in advance.
In fact, the only thing that I find at all remarkable is that Cameron is prepared to open himself up to all that criticism, alienating ordinary Conservative supporters by his bullyboy tactics and humiliating media coverage, just to knock the privatization of the NHS off the front page…. His devotion to furthering the interests of the corporations is almost courageous (although more likely self-interested).
But on a more sinister note, to return to the hypnotic invite to our suggestible brains… Cameron’s outburst was a dog whistle of contempt for Jeremy Corbyn, and for us to completely forget the importance of Corbyn’s line of questioning.
As the commentator above puts it ‘It isn’t just lies, it is psychological techniques, deliberately playing on fears discovered using market research techniques.’
All this raises questions about transparency and democratic legitimacy. We do not expect politicians to be trying to manipulate our unconscious, using behavioural, marketing techniques.
In discussing the politics of ‘Nudge’ (Cameron’s Behavioural Insights Team were known as the Nudge Unit’) Will Leggett writes:
We expect governments to clearly state their policies, and persuade us of their merits. …. advocates of the Big Society never tire of pointing out the pitfalls of ‘nanny statism’. So it is curious that they are simultaneously endorsing a policy approach which makes even our unconscious decisions an object of government intervention.
The good news is that the more these psychological manipulations become the subject of open debate, the less effective they are likely to be. Our ‘thinking’ will kick in and we might actually remember the parlous state of the NHS instead of Cameron’s shameful, sartorial schema.
Propaganda techniques – Glittering Generalities