As the general election campaign comes toward a close, Sean Ledwith looks at the sinister Trumpian tactics Boris Johnson's Tories have used
Last week, Boris Johnson was a great pains not to be seen with his political mentor who was in town to attend the Nato summit. The Prime Minister shrewdly perceived that at this point in the campaign it would be an act of electoral self-harm to be seen grinning and backslapping with a President who has publically stated his desire to let rip the US pharmaceutical industry on the finances of the NHS. Trump’s subsequent denial has fooled no one and Labour has rightly made the issue a key one in the campaign.
Johnson’s disappearing act, however, belies how closely the Tory leader’s strategy and tactics in this election have been shaped by the example of Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign and the three years of his administration so far. With the malign presence of Dominic Cummings in the background, Johnson has pursued an intentionally divisive and personalised style of attack on Corbyn and Labour that has steered clear of sober discussion of policy and instead, deployed deception, fabrication and hyperbole in an increasingly brazen manner. Johnson has also invoked the assistance of assorted spin doctors and public relations parasites from other parts of the globe who have facilitated the success of similar pro-corporate forces
Just as Trump did in 2016, Johnson has been selective in which parts of the mainstream media he chooses to interact with and which are contemptuously ignored. The pro-Labour Mirror newspaper has been banned from the Tory battle bus and the Prime Minister has sidestepped a grilling by Andrew Neil, the BBC’s most formidable political interviewer. This in blatant violation of a deal with Labour that Corbyn would undergo the Neil treatment only on condition that Johnson did the same. The chief executive of the Index on Censorship underlined how the unprecedented exclusion of the Mirror is reminiscent of the Trumpian approach to press freedom:
It reminds me of how Donald Trump behaves when he tries to eject journalists from White House press conferences because they don't agree with him. Conservatives have repeatedly said freedom of expression is a key British value. They should show that by defending it and allowing Mirror journalists onto their bus.
When Johnson declined to participate in a Channel 4 News debate on climate change, the programme ‘empty chaired’ him and replaced him with a melting ball of ice. Their reward for drawing attention to the looming apocalypse was dark mutterings from Tory ranks about non-renewal of C4’s licence, which is soon to expire. An unnamed source told the Telegraph:
If we are re-elected, we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.
But the worst Tory chicanery has been on social media where Johnson and his acolytes have hit new lows. Early on in the campaign, Conservative Central Office doctored a video of Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmeron their twitter account to make him appear to stumble during an explanation of Labour policy.
During the first televised leaders’ debate, the Tories incredibly concocted a false reality check account under the label ‘factcheckuk’ which purported to offer independent verification of the event but which actually pumped out pro-Johnson propaganda. When challenged, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab revealed the extent of his personal commitment to truth and honesty in politics, saying, "no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust". Tim Berners-Lee, one of the architects of the internet, was just one of millions outraged by the incident: "That was brazen," he said, "It was unbelievable they would do that."
Arguably even worse, when Labour unveiled its 2019 manifesto, the Tories created a false website that claimed to belong to the opposition party and which stated Labour would raise taxes across the board, implement two more referenda and ignore Brexit-all complete fictions. Before the manifesto was even released, Conservative Central HQ was spreading the lie that Labour’s spending commitments would amount to £1.2 trillion. Apart from being a ridiculous exaggeration, the Tories could not possibly have had access to the manifesto pre-publication.
These and other examples of Team Johnson’s contempt for honesty and integrity are not lapses in judgement but the outcome of a conscious strategy devised by the campaign advisors hired by the Prime Minister specifically for this campaign. Isaac Levido is an Australian spin doctor cut from the same cloth as Lynton Crosby, the so-called ‘Wizard of Oz’ who masterminded Cameron‘s victory in 2015 and Theresa May’s noticeably less successful effort two years ago. Levido was responsible for the surprise victory for the centre-right Liberal Party in Australia’s general election earlier this year.
At Levido’s right hand in CCHQ are Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, two New Zealanders who have previously worked alongside Crosby for the Saudi government and corporate mining giant, Glencore. They are unashamedly responsible for machinations such as the doctoring of the Keir Starmer clip and the fake Labour website. Mindless mantras such as ‘Get Brexit Done’ are also the creation of this poisonous hive-mind, designed to distort and simplify complex issues in the style of Trump’s MAGA exhortation. Topham and Guerin specialise in producing provocative memes that pander to voters’ basest emotions:
Like, we're not going to interact with something if we don't care about it. But the particular emotions that we need to unlock are arousal emotions, we're talking anger, excitement, pride, fear. Your content should be relating to one of these emotions for anyone to give a damn about it.
Topham and Guerin’s perspective on the importance of truth and integrity in politics can be deduced from the term they use for their central strategy – ‘shitposting.’
Minions of manipulation
In one sense none of this should surprise. A party premised on greed and divisiveness will tend to resort to toxic tactics. The Tories’ election campaign has had echoes of the past too, particularly of the famous faked Zinoviev letter which helped the Tories win the 1924 election. But the consistent contempt for and open manipulaton of the facts on display here marks a new low point. At one level it is a sign of the crisis of bourgeois politics but it is also a warning. The ruling class is not playing by the rules, even though they wrote them. The left must understand this is not a game but a deadly serious struggle against an economic and social regime the establishment will do anything to protect.