Got to say, it wasn’t the pandemic frontline I was expecting. Hospitals, yes of course, surgeries and clinics too. The Senedd and Westminster, naturally, as well as local authority and police HQs. And what of our battened-down, beleaguered High Streets, or the overstretched and underfunded helplines and agencies trying to help steer desperate people through all this?
All those, yes, the frontlines of this awful time. But zoos? No, they weren’t at the forefront of my worries. But then I wasn’t counting on the dazzling political nous of the Welsh Conservatives.
You might have noticed that today’s cri-de-coeur of the merry band of true blue warriors in the Senedd is a call to re-open Welsh zoos (not the one in Borth that keeps losing its animals, obviously, no-one’s making a fuss about that). In a press release, they claim that BoJo giving the green light to their re-opening in England means that he is “safeguarding the lives of animals that could otherwise have been euthanised”.
The self-styled Lion King of the Welsh tribe, Mr ReTweet-Davies, roared obligingly “the Welsh Labour Government’s lack of action…goes beyond its usual dithering into being cruel” and the danger is that “zoos and other open-air animal tourist attractions will shut for good, jobs will be lost, and animals will likely have to be put to sleep.”
Has there ever been quite such a literal manifestation of the Dead Cat strategy? That’s the name coined by Lynton Crosby, Boris Johnson’s other puppeteer, for something that diverts attention away from topics you’d rather not discuss; as he put it in his oh-so-elegant Aussie way, it’s “throwing a dead cat on the dining room table”. And as strategies go, there’s none more dead, and none more feline, than Ole ReTweet frantically trying to instil in our minds the image of Mark Drakeford holding a pistol to the head of a puma.
You have to hand it to them. The Welsh Tories made the decision right at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that they were going to use it as a dry run for next year’s Senedd elections. Watching all those ‘red wall’ seats go blue in December made them salivate at the prospect of marching into government in the Bay, but it also made them distinctly dizzy. They truly believed that all they had to do was sit back, and every time something was announced in London, to scream “why is the Welsh Labour Government not doing that too? Why have we been left behind AGAIN?” They convinced themselves that they could practically hear the votes pouring in.
As the primary focus of politics right now is health, an entirely devolved issue, they must have thought that they were on to a guaranteed winner. It was a continuation of the strategy first aired six years ago in that infamous speech of David Cameron’s to the Welsh Conservative conference, when he declared that Offa’s Dyke was now “the line between life and death”. It was a phrase that doubtless sounded terrific when some posh adolescent came up with it in a Downing Street brainstorming session, but considerably less so when it was said out loud by the Prime Minister on a stage in Llangollen. It sounds even more hollow now.
What they never banked on was that Cameron’s grubby soundbite might echo in a real health emergency, and prove to have some truth in it, but entirely the other way round to the one he intended. The more cautious approach of the Welsh authorities has been hugely vindicated; the figures of infection and death are absolutely clear.
And people have noticed. Here, even neighbours who are – to put it mildly – devo-sceptic are finding a brand new enthusiasm for Wales doing its own thing, according to its own needs. No-one, literally no-one, is looking at Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Cummings and co, and wishing that they were running the show here.
Where does this leave the Welsh Conservative strategy? In a bit of a mess it seems, but I sincerely hope (and fully expect) that they’re too stubborn to change it. They’re still convinced that, come next May their core strategy of persuading voters that England has it so much better than Wales will reap rewards. Everything is still being steered to that end.
So it’s out with the big, serious stuff – infection rates, deaths and so on, as they don’t fit the narrative – and in with the dead cat in the zoo strategy, together with more nebulous notions of Tory ‘freedom’ versus Labour or Plaid ‘nanny statism’. They even coined a phrase to sum it up: in a sallow rip-off of Churchill’s 1946 speech as Europe splintered, Senedd Tory leader Paul Davies stated the other day that “from Connah’s Quay on the Dee to Chepstow on the Wye, sometimes the border between England and Wales feels like a Slate Curtain” (the “sometimes” and “feels like” are clues that even he felt embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the allusion).
The Slate Curtain! That’s so bad, it’s almost brilliant. What were the ones that got away? The Coal Curtain? The Leek Curtain? Please say that there was a focus group involved. The Slate Curtain is not so much a political slogan, more something off the Farrow & Ball colour chart, midway between Mouse’s Back and Elephant’s Arse. It makes “the line between life and death” look like the masterstroke of a political genius, and that is really quite some achievement. Do carry on, chaps. Please.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: