Voices: Boris Johnson has broken the glass on the box marked ‘BBC culture war’

·5 min read
 (Brian Adcock)
(Brian Adcock)

If this is Operation Save Big Dog, then let’s hope no one’s turned on the TV up there in its golden wallpapered kennels. If Big Dog himself saw any of it then, well, we must hope he got taken out for a walk very quickly indeed, or some Tory donor or other’s going to be on the hook for a replacement nine grand sofa.

The mission to save the prime minister began before dawn, with Nadhim Zahawi demanding Keir Starmer apologise for an eight-month-old photograph in which he is holding a beer and doing absolutely nothing wrong. No apology has been forthcoming, on the grounds that no apology is needed, but this is the best they’ve got.

Well, not quite the best. We are now into what is very nearly two entire months of revelations about drinking and partying in Downing Street in the middle of the pandemic. As things stand, the only person to have resigned is Allegra Stratton.

She resigned because she tried, in private but on camera, to claim that the various parties that had happened in Downing Street were actually work events, and she was unable to prevent herself from laughing at the absurdity of it. The prime minister accepted her resignation, but is now using in earnest the defence she used as a joke.

It is unsurprising that, in such circumstances, absolutely anything will do. And so to distract from the broken swings and the suitcases of wine and the DJs and the trestle tables and all the rest of it, but mainly from the letters of no confidence about his own leadership that keep going in, Johnson has broken the glass on the box marked “BBC culture war”.

Polls consistently show there is virtually no public support for destroying the BBC’s funding model, but he knows it will keep the deranged wing of his party quiet for 10 seconds or so before they find something else to be outraged about (now that they’ve had their Brexit, the thing they’re mainly angry about is that they don’t know what they’re angry about. Anyone with a two-year-old knows that emotion well, as does anyone with the unimaginable misfortune of having anyone who’s a member of a Tory “research group” in their family).

The ground was laid for all this a while ago. Nadine Dorries installed as culture secretary and then deployed. Dorries is in many ways a formidable House of Commons operator. Her – at times – pyrotechnic stupidity is visible to absolutely everybody but her, rendering her an air of almost invincibility.

“The truth is that he is like water and water paves its own path,” said Novak Djokovic’s dad last week, just after comparing his son to Spartacus.

The same is true of Dorries. You can’t pin her down because there’s nothing there. There are no arguments. Only words.

There was, before she got to the despatch box of the House of Commons to announce that she would be freezing the licence fee for two years and, after 2027, abolishing it altogether, some consternation that this had all been announced, by her, on Sunday, in a tweet.

Other people, normal people, just wouldn’t be able to stand there and say, with a straight face, that it hadn’t been leaked by her, and that she had “refused to do any media interviews” on the subject. Because other people would know that, having tweeted it out yourself, entirely unprompted, it would be ridiculous to claim such a thing.

Other people, normal people, have the base mental capacity that is required to be troubled by such trifling things as observable reality. But if nothing can go in, then absolutely anything can come out. That is her greatest strength.

Sensible Tory after sensible Tory got up to tell her what she was announcing was mad. Damian Green said the licence fee works well, and if you’re planning to scrap it, you need to say what your alternative plan is. Sir Peter Bottomley said the same, as did Jeremy Wright.

Dorries told them that 2028 was a long way away. She was just “starting a debate”. And it is pointless to point out that if you’ve already decided the outcome – scrapping the licence fee – then you’re not really starting a debate, you’re announcing that the debate is already finished.

But as this is a notion that the secretary of state for culture cannot process, she cannot be harmed by it. She transcends her own stupidity. She free-wheels above it, slipped, as she is, from the surly bonds of the most basic understanding of absolutely anything at all.

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No sooner had she spoken than the social media campaign began. “Licence Fee Frozen”. “Money in the pockets of hard-working families.” It will be interesting to see how well such things will have aged by April, when merely the VAT on the average household energy bill will be about the same as the BBC licence fee, and they still won’t have cut it.

Johnson and Gove had their faces photoshopped on to musketeers during the Brexit referendum and promised they would scrap VAT on energy bills. They haven’t done it. Now Johnson says to do so would be “regressive”.

VAT on energy and the BBC licence fee are equally regressive. It remains to be seen which one voters prefer spending their money on – enormous energy costs or their favourite TV shows. One suspects it will be the latter.

On this evidence, Big Dog will be very lucky to still be around to see it.

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