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What’s the point of political stunts?

British MEPs Brexit Party turn their backs during the European anthem. Credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

British MEPs Brexit Party turn their backs during the European anthem. Credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

July 5, 2019   4 mins

Hold the moral outrage. Nigel Farage and his motley crew of single issue protestors masquerading as politicians turn their backs in the European Parliament. Big deal. What did we expect them to do?

The knee-jerk response from the sanctity of the pro-European high ground was to accuse the Brexit Party of being Nazi imitators (Hitler’s NSDAP led by Joseph Goebbels pulled the same stunt in the Reichstag back in 1930) or petulant children playing silly games.

Either or both may be perfectly reasonable responses but they entirely miss the point. Worse, they play straight into Mr Farage’s eager hands.

The stunt worked. It got them on the Ten O’Clock News. Those who voted for the Brexit Party saw a collective two-finger salute that they would have considered entirely justified. With their predictable indignation, those who despise the party merely helped to amplify the message it was trying to disseminate.

Political stunts almost always have an effect. That’s why political leaders have been pulling them ever since Caligula appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, if not before. And they will go on pulling them for as long as they need to reassure their support base or seek new votes.

Wise politicians, or their advisers, resort to them sparingly. They know their use always comes with high attendant risks. Successful ones certainly produce short-term benefits, but these are soon forgotten. When they go wrong they can hang round your neck like a millstone.

Remember the Ed Stone? That ill-fated attempt by Ed Miliband back in 2015 (was it really only four years ago?) to prove the immutability of his election pledges was doomed from the first tap of a chisel.

Its defenders, and there are still a few, argue that any publicity stunt is a good publicity stunt if it gets the product talked about, in this case those pledges. But can you remember any of them? No, me neither. It failed because it amplified the message of Miliband’s opponents rather than his own. Could he be trusted? If the answer is yes, no need to say it. If the answer is no, or at best maybe, then shut up about it.

Visual amplification is the reason we still see those campaign buses, surely the product of a bygone age, on our streets. They are a cheap way of providing a picture for the papers or the TV news. You can paint things on them for a few quid and off you go. The advertising standards authority is powerless to intervene if you make outrageous claims. I think you know the bus I’m thinking of.

The same risks apply to stunts on wheels as they do more generally, however. Long before Theresa May took to the stage as the world’s most improbable Dancing Queen she was associated with those vans touring London warning illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”. Labour’s Pink Bus was widely regarded as unsophisticated at best or patronising at worst in its attempt to appeal to women voters. Neither vehicle was seen by many people in person but the images lived on long after the garage doors were thankfully shut.

Stunts grab attention because the media in all its forms demands images and images stick in the mind. Pretty unsophisticated stuff but it’s a fact of modern political life.

They work when they reinforce a view that most inattentive voters are generally inclined to accept. They almost never change perceptions dramatically. Margaret Thatcher driving a tank. Strong on defence. Tick. Neil Kinnock also driving a tank. Fail. David Cameron riding with huskies. A different kind of Tory. Tick. William Hague wearing a baseball cap. Fail.

What gives the campaign strategist hope is knowing that occasionally a stunt that might be expected to produce a collective groan or belly-laugh actually works. People still remember Tony Blair buying Gordon Brown an ice cream cone during the 2005 election, smiles all round.

Everyone knew that the two men could barely stand to be in the same room together by this stage. Perhaps that animosity had already, in the jargon, been ‘priced in’ and people were just pleased to see them looking so happy. Election victory number three for T. Blair duly followed.

Stuntology is an inexact science, but a reasonable case could be made for saying that those politicians with the self-confidence and the chutzpah to carry off a stunt effectively are also likely to be election winners. That is not to argue for causality, rather for concomitance. True certainly of Thatcher and Blair, and arguably the two Harolds, Wilson and Macmillan.

The obvious exceptions need not spoil a good general theory. John Major’s soap-box in 1992 worked and he was no natural showman. But he was up against Neil Kinnock, whose stunts included appearing in pop videos with Tracey Ullman and falling in the sea in Brighton. And one of the greatest showmen of all time, Winston Churchill, was soundly beaten in 1945 by Clement Attlee whose contribution to political communications was best summed up by the exchange with a TV interviewer. “Is there anything you’d like to say about the coming election?” “No.”

Which brings us to the future. Barring accidents, including the possibility of a stunt that spectacularly misfires, we are about to see the Greatest Showman on today’s inglorious political stage take on the role of Prime Minister. There is no need to rehearse his repertoire of headline-grabbing tomfoolery because it is so well known. Suffice it to say that he knows how to play to the cameras.

He’ll get there without the inconvenience of a general election, although one may soon follow either because he wants one or because he’s forced into one. What then?

Boris the buffoon, who would like to be compared to Churchill, versus Jeremy Corbyn, who holds Attlee as a political hero. “Is there anything you would like to say about whether Brexit is actually good for the country, Mr Corbyn?” “No.”

I suspect much of the country would prefer to turn their backs on the pair of them. If they do it would help both Mr Farage and whoever gets to head the Liberal Democrats after their under-reported leadership election.

In a matter of months, we could face a choice between Tory and Labour leaders who prefer to deflect scrutiny with a mixture of bluster and obfuscation and political outsiders who have so far escaped detailed examination because they haven’t been considered serious contenders for power.

It is as fertile ground for stunt-based politics as we have ever seen in this country. For the first time we may be looking at an election that could be swung by who pulls off the best stunts. And that is as serious an indictment of the state of British politics that I, for one, can think of.

Lance Price is a political commentator and former communications adviser to Tony Blair.


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