I found myself having to explain dead cats on the table to a client recently.
Before you call the RSPCA, it was as part of a wider conversation about messaging where I mentioned how election party strategists are using the bizarrely-named theory to shape the conversation to their advantage.
The idea is this: you’re on the back foot in the national debate, taking on water and you have no easy way out. So you throw a dead cat on the table - a political bombshell, often personal and vitriolic - that ‘crosses the line’ and diverts attention.
Boris Johnson - no stranger to a feline himself - described it best: “People will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point… is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
The tactic comes from ruthless master strategist Lynton Crosby, credited with helping the Conservatives win the last election in 2015. In one example, Michael Fallon had an unprompted outburst on Radio 4 about Ed Miliband’s deal-making with the SNP and scrapping Trident. It worked, and the media and public talked about that and not tax loopholes for the rest of the week.
Of course the undisputed master of this technique - intentionally or otherwise - is Donald Trump. He throws so many dead cats on the world stage it makes everyone’s heads spin, not least when they’re often more damaging than the thing he was trying to distract from.
It’s doubtless effective politically, and welcome fodder for Fleet Street and 24-hour news channels. But it also risks further skewing and eroding public debate and trust, reducing politics to nasty point-scoring (though many will say it was always about that). Indeed, in any other walk of life outside of Westminster it might even be labelled bullying.
Trying to rise above it is futile if the other side doesn’t do the same. And there’s no way it’s going to be abandoned anytime soon as a technique as it clearly works. So people may have to accept that the state of political discourse will get worse before it gets better, and we all decide to kick the cat altogether.