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The swine on the cliff: Boris Johnson is pig-ignorant and Keir Starmer is a hungry hog for Farmer Rupert...
Couldn't David Cameron have given the Prime Minister a... uh... head's up?
The most damning and direct political analysis came yesterday not from any of the national newspapers but from the agriculture industry trade title Pig World. In an excoriating editorial, its editor Alistair Driver responded to Boris Johnson’s industrially arrogant interview on The Andrew Marr show, writing:
Having covered farming politics for more than 20 years, I have never seen such an appalling, ill-judged and ill-informed interview.
It seems astonishing that it came from a man deemed worthy by some of holding the role of Prime Minister.
Marr had put it to Johnson that more than 120,000 pigs will have to be killed and incinerated if there is no answer to a chronic shortage of abattoir and butchery workers in the next 10 days. He continued:
That would be the single biggest cull of healthy animals ever to happen in the history of British agriculture. What are you going to do?
In a display of jowl-juddering, eye-rolling, contempt-radiating arrogance that was astounding even from him — a man who treats facts with the same disdain he shows for wedding vows and counting his offspring — Johnson replied:
I hate to break it to you, Andrew but our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. That is the reality. Your viewers need to understand that is what happens.
You are talking about a shortage of a particular type of workforce. What I think needs to happen… there is a question about the types of job that are being done, they pay that is being offered, the levels of automation, the levels of investment in those jobs.
Johnson went on to mutter unconvincingly, throwing in some $10 vocabulary1 to impress the easily gulled, that:
… the great hecatomb of pigs you describe on farms has not taken place. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens.
That laissez-faire phrase, those five words — “Let’s see what happens…” — sums up Boris Johnson’s attitude to life and government. Where David Cameron was the “essay crisis” Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister who presents some chewed up scraps, claiming the dog ate his homework, despite the bitemarks looking distinctly human.
Perhaps Johnson should have asked his recently-installed Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, for a primer on pigs, given her notorious expertise in pork markets:
While Driver — who is also employed by the National Pig Association, which makes him more a player than a neutral observer — is willing to speak bluntly about Johnson, the political hacks who rely so heavily on access to government will chuckle and roll their eyes at the Marr interview for a day and move on. Just as they moved on from, among other things…
… the Brexit bus, the fridge-hiding, the Covid contract corruption, the wallpaper on the public dime and the dodgy trust plan, the bizarre speech about making toy buses to relax, the Jennifer Arcuri affair and its attendant financial corruption, the cosy dinners and tennis matches with ‘generous’ Russians, the racist, sexist, and homophobic comments recorded in decades of columns, his personal role in prolonging the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the promise to supply a journalist’s address to his fraudster friend so he could have him roughed up, and most of all the deaths of over 120,000 people on his watch.
Here’s a previous edition with a more thorough accounting of his many lies:
For a prime example of how the Westminster hacks have responded to the Marr interview as if it were Johnson hoofing around a tennis court, letting the wife of an oligarch score a few points before tea, you need only look at Henry Deedes sketch for The Daily Mail.
Deedes, a hereditary journalist — grandson of Bill Deedes, the former Conservative MP and Daily Telegraph editor, and cousin of British journalism’s most ludicrously named writer, Sophia Money-Coutts — chuckles that:
Marr's flappy ears waggled. I sensed a producer was issuing instructions in his earpiece to rein his guest in. 'I'm sorry, this is getting towards bluster,' Marr barked at his guest. 'No, it's not!' huffed Boris. Talk turned to pigs. A hundred thousand porkers are due to be destroyed in coming weeks, because of the shortage of abattoir workers. 'Wotcha gonna do?' asked Marr.
Boris wearily pointed out food production does involve the killing of large amounts of animals. Er yes, but the end result is normally juicy pork chops arriving on our plates rather than burned to a crisp in an incinerator.
It’s a joke, a lark, a side-issue to be tossed off in a sketch; Deedes doesn’t even bother to get the numbers right nor note how offensively and contemptuously wrong Johnson was or how arrogantly he stuck to his indefensible position.
Deedes’ introduction made it clear how childishly he’d treat Marr vs. Johnson:
Boris Johnson sat hunched in his chair, palms clasped to those meaty great gams, his face an expression of affected seriousness.
Hair scrunched, tie slightly skew-whiff, it was the posture of a schoolboy who'd been dragged out of bed to attend mid-morning matins.
Robert Peston, doing his confused tourist act, simply said Johnson’s comments were “odd” while Laura Kuenssberg was more interested in the Prime Minister’s Run For Your Wife-style “adulterer interrupted during a fire alarm” running outfit of white shirt, shorts and smart shoes.
That’s how the political hacks treat Boris Johnson; they buy into his childish act and indulge it. He’s not expected to be a 57-year-old man with the most serious of jobs. Instead, being expected to face the scrutiny of an interview, he is the metaphorical schoolboy, inconvenienced by the demands of the teacher.
On Friday, during the press preview on Sky News, Sebastian Payne of The Financial Times — recently all over the papers like a pissing puppy with his new “Westminster hack goes on Northern safari2” book — responded to front pages on fuel shortages and problems with food supplies by saying:
There’s no doubt there is a Brexit element to this, that a lot of people we know — particularly eastern European workers — have gone home after that. But it’s simply not all about that particular incident. If you look at all European countries, they’re struggling with supply chains; there’s been empty shelves in Brussels, in Paris, in Germany, this is about the world economy…
That’s simply not a credible analysis. Yes, there were empty shelves in Paris… in one shop: Marks & Spencer’s, which has been affected by Brexit issues stopping it from easily bringing goods across from the UK. There aren’t long queues for petrol at the pumps or swathes of empty shelves in supermarkets across Europe. It was as if Payne believed we were cut off from European TV channels and papers when the Brexit referendum passed, as if we can’t talk to people in other nations and discover the mix of pity and schadenfreude they’re feeling.
An unserious Prime Minister is enabled by an unserious media and particularly by a press in which the tabloid protection racket still rules. Politicians believe that they must prostrate themselves for The Sun and The Mail in public and make themselves available to Murdoch, Rothermere and their representatives on earth in private.
That’s why Keir Starmer — despite a promise during the Labour leadership campaign not to speak to The Sun (later reframed as promising not to speak to the paper during that specific campaign) — once again had a byline in the red top over the weekend. During The Andrew Marr Show — him again — the host revealed that Starmer was not approached by The Sun to write for it but that his team asked for the slot.
The 2022 Labour Party Conference is due to be held in Liverpool, a city where The Sun is not welcome. The 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster, Andrew Devine, died in July.
Hoping to get a shot in before coverage of the Tory Party conference swamps any Labour interventions, Starmer contributed a piece headlined I don’t want people to have another Christmas spoiled by Boris Johnson’s incompetence in the same edition that Karren Brady praised his wife but dismissed him as (accurately) as “dull” and lacking charisma.
Starmer’s op-ed is the continuation of his strategy to argue that he and his shadow cabinet of grey technocratic middle managers who be more competent than the current government while pursuing many of the same policies. The sell is that with a Starmer administration you’d still get benefit cuts, reduced public services, deportation flights and “tougher” policing but with jokes and Latin references replaced with the thin, grim, apologetic smile of someone looking at their computer and saying flatly that there’s nothing they can do.
“Britain deserves better than this incompetence and total lack of leadership,” says Starmer, paragraphs after committing to support whatever emergency measures the clown car cabinet comes up. His piece has all the passion and attack of a note to a rental car company to complain about a weird smell. Keir Starmer offers not opposition, but the mild disappointment of a dad who was really looking forward to the trip to Chessington World of Adventure but is frankly shocked to discover how much drinks cost and the inadequacy of the parking arrangements.
The argument from Starmer’s team and supporters alike is that he has to be in The Sun and must speak directly to its readers. It’s a trap that he steps in with depressing frequency. Even as The Sun humiliates him on a daily basis, he begs for its love, certain that if he can get Rupert Murdoch onside he will win.
But the media environment has changed hugely since Blair made his deal with the devil, not at the crossroads but on Hayman Island, at a News Corp retreat, having been flown there on a private jet by Murdoch’s then-son-in-law Matthew Freud. Earlier this year, the monetary value of The Sun was written down to zero in News UK’s accounts and in 2017, despite the paper’s strong endorsement of the Conservative Party and endless monstering of Jeremy Corbyn, 30% of its readers still voted Labour.
Starmer is far from the first Labour figure since Blair to believe that courting The Sun is unavoidable. Even Diane Abbott, who is currently castigating the Labour leader for his decision to once again write for The Sun, wrote for it back in 2010 when she was running to be Labour Leader, arguing that the party could not win “without its lost Sun readers”.
People who say that Starmer has to write for The Sun, rather than simply engaging with it as an inescapable part of the British media environment, are people who are — whatever their high-minded arguments — fine with maintaining a protection racket. Who is Rupert Murdoch? An Australian-born, US citizen, who jumped to the front of the UK’s vaccine queue, and has an ever-open backdoor to government.
Nothing can or will change while we tolerate a tabloid protection racket and ‘broadsheets’ — tabloids with more expensive thesauruses — that scurry after that racket’s priorities, with the output of both used by the broadcast outlets to define their daily focus. It’s a media that maintains an ersatz democracy, a thin veneer of choice for most of us.
All this talk of pigs led me — a former star Religious Studies pupil in gone to seed — to think of the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine. Mark 5:13 tells it like this:
And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.
Thought for the Day voice: The stranglehold of the Murdoch and Mail press on British public debate is like the unclean spirit forced into the swine. Until they are driven out and we have politicians willing to take a real stand against their possession, we will be plagued by charlatans and clowns, forced to watch the swine milling on the cliff tops.
Incidentally, a hecatomb was a great public sacrifice in ancient times, originally of a hundred oxen. So unsurprisingly, Johnson — a man for whom fiddling figures is a hobby up there with fiddling with other people’s wives — is greatly underestimating his numbers there.
Admittedly Payne did grow up in Gateshead but has since been radicalised by a stint at The Spectator.