The dead cat lives on: Rishi Sunak’s maths plan is pure distraction
The prime minister chose to (re)announce his big maths policy just hours before he faced a probe on his wife's business interests
When Rishi Sunak promised a new kind of government in front of 10 Downing Street almost six months ago, he may have represented some welcome boredom after the white-knuckle chaos of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, but the spreadsheet-loving new prime minister did not dispense with all of their underhand tactics.
While partygate and suitcases of wine, calamitous mini budgets and the ‘anti-growth coalition’ may feel like yesterday’s news - the kinds of phrases that only cause a mild wince now - one of the tactics that lives on is the ‘dead cat’ (ironically).
In January last year I wrote about Johnson’s team’s attempt to distract attention from Sue Gray’s probe into lockdown parties, which amounted to a bizarre campaign against Whitehall staff working from home. It was a non-story. A flimsy fabrication designed to whip up the tabloids, to incite a culture war, and to get people talking about anything else except the prime minister’s predicament.
The dead cat approach was summed up perfectly by Johnson himself, when he was still writing his Telegraph column as Mayor of London way back in 2013. Paying tribute to his former campaign manager and “Australian friend” Lynton Crosby, who came up with the ruse, he wrote: “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.”
Sunak deployed the dead cat himself while serving as Johnson’s Chancellor, announcing a windfall tax on oil companies - a screeching policy u-turn - on the day after the Sue Gray report was published in May last year.
Indeed, government spin is all about timing, and it can work a number of ways, as Sunak’s team has shown recently, choosing a good day to bury bad news. On 22 March, when Johnson was being grilled by the Privileges Committee over misleading Parliament about partygate in what was a hotly anticipated piece of political theatre, what was quietly slipped out? Rishi Sunak’s tax returns, of course.
And in the realm of ‘dead-catting’, which of course has the opposite aim of drawing attention, Sunak curiously chose today (17 April) to give a big announcement about his plans to combat the ‘anti maths mindset’ that has apparently gripped the UK. This may have left you scratching your head - if you weren’t reaching for your calculator to work out how much a tax bill of £432,000 means in terms of earnings.
Never mind the acceptance that maths exam grades would surely be low on the list of anyone’s priorities of what to fix about Britain right now - as nurses threaten to strike until Christmas and wages fall further behind inflation - the whole briefing carried more than a whiff of deja vu. Wasn’t this the same reheated speech he’d given just a few months ago, when he was talking about his plans to make maths obligatory until the age of 18?
This mild fog of confusion lifted just a couple of hours later, when Parliament’s standards watchdog announced that the prime minister was under investigation over a possible failure to declare the shares his wife holds in a childcare agency that could be boosted by last month’s Budget. It all suddenly started to add up (ok that's enough of the tortuous maths metaphor).
The only surprising thing is why Sunak chose a rehashed policy on numeracy. It has certainly provoked a debate, or rather a backlash - but it’s hardly likely to overshadow this inquiry into his family interests. More of a dead hamster than a dead cat.
That’s a C minus for R. Sunak. Must try harder.