Our Government is a Stage Magician

Onstage, the magician does not perform an act of magic (spoilers I know) but of distractions. Whilst the rabbit is being yanked from a top hat, the spotlight focused firmly upon its fluffy ears, the magician performs his deceit elsewhere. The Johnson administration has been doing this since it first stepped into Number 10, albeit without the rabbit (though I am sure Mr Rees-Mogg can provide a top hat).

The first smokescreens appeared before and during the 2019 General Election campaign. The inflammatory entitlement of bills as ‘surrender acts’ and CCHQ twitter posing as an independent fact checker meant nothing to crucial swing voters, but attracted uproar from political commentators and activists, distracting from meaningful issues. It was at this same time that the Conservative manifesto was published, detailing economic policies unlikely to please northern Labour voters the Conservatives were gunning for. However, the furore surrounding the aforementioned ‘nothing’ issues overshadowed scrutiny of the manifesto. The rabbit reared its head and hooked the audience, the magic worked. Johnson won.

Next, it was time for a reshuffle, and with it another conjuror’s trick. Despite padding-out support within cabinet, he accidentally booted his Chancellor. With David’s departure, audiences of microphones turned to the Prime Minister. The spotlight then fine-tuned its focus on government, when accusations of bullying and unfair dismissal were levelled at the Home Secretary. Yet, when media scrutiny was firmly locked onto the new cabinet, Johnson bamboozled again. Despite having gotten engaged three months previous, Johnson first officially announced his engagement to Carrie Symonds, enveloping the attention himself. On the 1st March, a day after the most senior Home Office civil servant accused Priti Patel of bullying and just a week after the Chancellor’s resignation, the front pages of The Times, Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph were covered in lovers’ portraits of the happy couple. The announcement’s timing drowned mentions of Patel’s behaviour, keeping Johnson buoyant in the polls.

The coronavirus has now become the era-defining moment of Johnson’s premiere, its social and economic ramifications monumental, a chance to mirror his idol Churchill with steely speeches and stalwart bravery. In reality, Johnson has made the Liberal Democrats’ “car-crash” election campaign seem nothing but a broken wing mirror. Lack of testing, PPE, repatriation, messaging and economic support has been levelled by overdoses of confidence, sex-scandals, police misbehaviour and government misinformation to provide a devastating death toll, no matter how the statistics are framed. To counter this, the magician unveiled his beautiful assistant, the health secretary. Hancock soon boasted a target of testing 100,000 people daily by the end of April, however it quickly became apparent that the government would not reach this. The pressure mounted and the spotlight beamed. Hancock moved the goalposts to total tests and scored, processing 100,000 tests on the 30th April, and only the 30th April. The goal became the focus of attention, not the foul-play in the run-up, and the magic went unchecked. The see-saw between Matt Hancock and civil servant Simon McDonald’s contrary statements to the Foreign Affairs select committee concerning the EU Ventilator scheme achieved a similar effect.

In conclusion, it is vital we do not fall for distractions, but clasp failures of government like a dog with a bone. This scrutiny can work, faith in government strategy is now net-negative (YouGov, May 17th). The illusion of magic can be broken, so long as the audience focuses on the trickery, and not the rabbit.

* Peter Cocks is a LD member and activist in Guildford, and will soon be studying History and Political Science at McGill University, Montreal

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Steve Trevethan 21st May '20 - 9:19am

    Thanks for an interesting and useful article!
    Might we also point out the pro-government/deep state bias of the corporate media?

  • Pre-virus I had noted that we had gone back to the sound-bite Blair years, everything sounding good until you looked at the details but no idea where we will be post-virus, whether the govn will use it to roll back the state or expand it. The coronavirus mess has illustrated how powerful the state can be, verging on (perhaps necessary) brain-washing… anyone who goes against the new norm likely to be lynched by an angry populace, It would be much worst if we had Mrs May in charge, with her love of endless laws and regulations, whereas Boris is more of a – shock, horror – liberal.

  • A useful metaphor. In today’s politics only the barest minimum of satire is required. Given his track record, the occupant of the office of Prime Minister should not have been given the benefit of doubt from day one of the crisis, however dazzling his personal life.

  • Clive Peaple 22nd May '20 - 11:15am

    The country is broken. It is the Liberal Democrat job to state this forensically, start building a Press presence, stop being the ‘nice’ people start to be the ‘just’ people.

  • Judging by Johnson’s continuing popularity it seems “You can fool all the people all of the time….”

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