The Instagram AdministrationHow the Conservative PR Apparatus Captured the British State
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new title shows that the Conservative Party is using state institutions as party political weapons, says Sam Bright
Boris Johnson conducted a ‘mini’ reshuffle of his Cabinet this week – designed to stop, or at least delay, a coup against his leadership triggered by a series of revelations about the exploits of his staff during lockdown.
While the country is enraged, Johnson is focused squarely on his party. Rumours suggest that the spectre of a no-confidence vote is lurking in the near future, with dozens of MPs reportedly having submitted their letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs.
It takes 54 letters to trigger this vote – a fate that Johnson is trying to repel with all his remaining political clout.
So, as well as appointing fresh figures to enforce party discipline, the Prime Minister has bestowed an old ally with a new ministerial title. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a perennial backbench rebel before his Cabinet appointment in July 2019, has been appointed as the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency – the first person to hold this office.
Even by Johnson’s standards, this was a shamelessly political move. Rees-Mogg is a disciple of radical, pro-Brexit backbench MPs who plagued Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister and are now pulling Johnson further towards the right – threatening to trigger a no confidence vote as they do so. Rees-Mogg was lifted into the Cabinet from this band of hard-right rebels, and his new role is presumably designed to remind the plotters of their indebtedness to the Prime Minister – who delivered a hard Brexit and purged a swathe of moderates from the party.
However, while Rees-Mogg serves a function for Johnson’s political ambitions, it’s difficult to see how his new role will serve the country. The responsibility for dealing with Brexit – signing trade deals and dealing with its aftershocks – lies with numerous other Government departments. It, therefore, appears as though Rees-Mogg has merely been appointed as a professional Brexit cheerleader.
This is laughable and expeditious – but it also signals a wider and more worrying trend, of the Conservative Party using the organs and functions of the state as public relations tools.
Just last week, for example, the Government released an official report into the benefits of Brexit, written by civil servants and paid for by the taxpayer. As Chris Grey has observed in these pages, the Government’s report was not an objective, mathematical cost-benefit analysis – given that not a single downside of Brexit was mentioned in its 100 pages. Rather, it was a word salad of half-truths, exaggerations and policies that could have been implemented even despite Brexit. It was a party political broadcast, packaged as official, impartial, objective fact.
Rees-Mogg is also not the only Cabinet member whose title is derived from a Conservative Party slogan. Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Levelling Up – a political phrase coined and deployed by Johnson during the 2019 General Election campaign. This suggests an administration motivated by projection over substance, with the roles of ministers derived from a party manifesto rather than the concerns of the nation.
An Instagram Administration
Ultimately, Johnson’s Government is a product of the Instagram age – it recognises that clever branding (and a carefree attitude to controversy) is the recipe for viral popularity, diminishing the need for competence, substance and detail. Thus, the advisors tasked with cultivating Johnson’s image have been brought from the Conservative campaign trail into Government – let loose on the machinery of the state.
As revealed by Byline Times, the meme merchants Topham Guerin – reportedly responsible for the Conservative Party’s notorious ‘Fact Check UK’ Twitter stunt during the 2019 election campaign – were hired by the Government to advise on Coronavirus communications. Chloe Westley, who has run social media for various libertarian campaigns, still appears to be a Downing Street special advisor – despite the controversy that surrounded her appointment.
This process of fleeting fame has, of course, worked in reverse during Johnson’s present predicament. As Daniel Finkelstein points out in the Times, Johnson has in the past been the beneficiary of cascading popular opinion – someone whose following was built on everyone else seeming to like him – mirroring online trends. However, without any substance to underpin this support, public opinion has rapidly shifted away from Johnson, evaporating into the ether.
What remains, however, is the widespread adoption of Johnson’s techniques among his Cabinet acolytes, who have manipulated the machinery of the state to buttress their own PR efforts.
Rishi Sunak has been mocked even within the Conservative Party for using every policy announcement as a self-promotion opportunity – flashy graphics frequently deployed by the Treasury on social media with the Chancellor’s signature, or accompanied by his beaming, airbrushed headshot.
Indeed, the trend of style over substance has transcended from Number 10 to Number 11 – epitomised by Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which gave discounts to diners in the summer of 2020, when lockdown restrictions had been eased. The scheme incubated new COVID infection clusters, and barely impacted hospitality trade, but it allowed the Chancellor – a millionaire privately educated former banker – to swagger through Wagamama with a katsu curry, reinforcing his image as a regular guy simply wanting to make his people happy.
Following this fad has been Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whose apparent fascination with photo opportunities led her to recently impersonate Margaret Thatcher by posing on a tank in Estonia. In October, it was noted that Truss was seeking to hire a ‘digital media special advisor’ to rival Sunak’s slick online persona, while the Times reported that – in the six weeks after September’s Cabinet reshuffle – 267 pictures of Truss had been posted to the Government’s Flickr account (free images that can be used by journalists and press officers), which was 163 more than all other Cabinet ministers combined.
This deployment of state resources in the name of political posturing may seem trivial, but it has established a precedent with more serious implications: namely, if senior Cabinet ministers believe that the organs of the state are tools to further their own ambitions, then democracy itself can be subsumed to the interests of one political party.
This has been evident in the case of the Government’s Elections Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, which proposes limiting the franchise by demanding that people produce a photo ID when they vote. Such a policy will hit marginalised people the hardest – particularly immigrants – who are comparatively less likely to vote for the Conservatives.
Gerrymandering has been a toxic feature of the American political system in recent decades, through which Republican legislators have manipulated the boundaries of democracy to boost their chances of victory. Under Donald Trump, this approach reached its logical end-point, with the Republican President claiming that he alone had the right to govern, despite comfortably losing the 2020 election to Joe Biden.
Ultimately, however, if you believe that democracy is one of your possessions, you are entirely unwilling to consider that it sometimes involves you losing. Just like Trump, this is Johnson’s instinct – a man who has never lost, who has failed upwards at every juncture – attempting to preserve what he sees as his God-given right.
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