We’re used to political cartoon caricatures; less so cartoon characters in our politics.
No wonder that when our Right Honourable PM Boris Johnson introduced a “sort-of Picasso-like hairdryer”, better known as Peppa Pig, as an emblem for UK creativity and business, the UK media didn’t know how to react.
Then again, there’s little usual about British politics these days. Call it Covid-syndrome, but the performative nature of politics over the past year or two has served, for many, as a source of perverse comfort – a revamped symbol of that age-old British adage of Keep Calm and Carry On.
Yes, we were enraged when a man tried to designate a drive to a castle as an eye test, but we were also amused – and what should be, and was, a scandal, became a meme, a joke, and a talking point. Now, when the country’s Prime Minister loses his place during his important speech to the Confederation of British Industry, he is caricatured as the “bumbling fool”. And this week marks the latest in his cartoon career, the subject of a national “flood of memes” as his aide lets slip of a clandestine Christmas bash. Maybe cartoon characters aren’t as absent from our politics as we thought – it’s just that we colour them in ourselves.
Politics has always been a performance. Blurts from backbenchers and parliamentary ceremonies are designated ‘tradition’. But whereas before such performance was a symptom of procedure and convention, now it serves to appeal to a particular audience – to a committee of viewers and tweeters that hoist the Government up until they’re trending.
And trending they are – albeit not quite how they’d like. November was hardly a month of laughter for the Tories – nothing dampens bravado like a sleaze crisis, an underwhelming climate agreement, or a social care controversy. Now, as December kicks off, this year’s holiday month yields no festive cheer for Downing Street, as their Christmas party scandal cuts through into public attention – even without any certainty that it’ll cause a nasty hangover at a future election.
Is this something more significant than that British tradition to forgive and forget? “Boring” is an adjective easily applied to the stock politician by the many; but when attributed to the Leader of the Opposition, it serves as a critique. In the modern-day political soapbox, ““real” politics” are out and bravado is in. Just ask the 32% of Labour’s voters who find their own Leader unfashionably dull.
Perhaps the Prime Minister has tapped into something over the past couple of years. When the news focuses on deaths and disease, stories of bumbling fools and silly sidekicks provide momentary relief. They give something to engage a public, bored of the worn-down spats between Remainers and Leavers and burned out by a barrage of global warming gloom.
This hints at more than just a symptom of shortened societal attention. At a time when keynote speeches get lost in translation, the slogan is king. Whether ‘Take Back Control’ or ‘Build Back Better’, the modern politician relies on snappy taglines to make their performance more engaging than their policy.
Or perhaps the performance is the policy – a display of intent and a presentation of personality. Neither can be denied to our ‘celebrity’ leader, who’s spectacle, when broadcast beyond the stage in Westminster, seems able to connect far better and far further than his grey-suited colleagues.
But does the public still want an encore of this new political performativity? Escapism it may have been, but it’s hard to escape from the mounting social, economic, and environmental issues that the country faces. Is this week’s Christmas party scandal something that the PM can weather, or something that ends up framing the Tories as Labour clearly wish – as a company of out of touch elites, distanced from public sufferance and removed from their own “responsible” rules?
Perhaps tomfoolery is no longer in vogue. Time will tell, if not until we next take to the polls. And if, despite all of the backlash he faced from that speech, Boris still holds the key to public perception, then maybe I’m snorting up the wrong tree. In that case, and in the latest slogan from our Prime Daddy Pig – Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.