28 June 2021

The Matt Hancock ‘dead cat’ theory is a new low in political analysis

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Was there more to Matt Hancock’s resignation than meets the eye? Could the Health Secretary’s departure really have been timed to distract us from a far bigger story? 

That was the suggestion offered over the weekend by the comedian David Schneider, whose social media posts are a litany of glib half-truths masquerading as satire, designed to appeal to the people whose intellects are not so much keen as over-enthusiastic.

Schneider might not have used the term, but this kind of loopy thinking seems to have proliferated ever since the idea of a “dead cat” was introduced into our political lexicon. You’re probably familiar with the idea, which is attributed to Aussie strategist Lynton Crosby: make a big hoo-ha about some issue or other to distract attention from another, more damaging issue. 

The thing is, for that to work the ‘dead cat’ has to be something that is at worst mildly damaging, if not actively positive for your side. Trying to distract people with a story that is actually worse for you than the one you’re trying to supposedly hide rather defeats the point of the exercise.  

And it takes a very special kind of political intelligence to deduce that a story about “missing Covid tests” is more damaging to the Government than losing one of its most senior ministers in the most unedifying circumstances, a day after the Prime Minister had declared the matter closed.  To paraphrase the man himself, a cynic might suggest Mr Schneider knows this very well and was just fishing for Likes.

The ‘dead cat’ theory of Hancock’s resignation also relies on a pretty partial reading of the actual story. On the surface ‘550m missing tests’ does sound awful. But that’s not really what the National Audit Office’s report actually says. 

The statistic the reports cite is that only 14% of Lateral Flow Device (LFD) tests – the very quick, but not necessarily very accurate ones – have been registered. That probably indicates two things, both of which are to do with a badly designed system, rather than some bout of official negligence.

First, that a lot of the LFD tests may have gone unused. I for one have six spare tests at home because I was given a packet of seven when I only needed one. The Government hasn’t “lost track” of the remaining six, because it never had track of them in the first place, they are just given out in batches and people are expected to register the results off their own bat.

Which leads us to problem two: it’s pretty obvious that lots of people are not bothering to register the results if they are negative. That’s a flaw in the design of the system. Most people would instinctively understand the need to register a positive result, but there’s precious little incentive to register a negative test. Indeed, I’ve heard several people remark that they only thought they had to register the result if it showed they were infected. 

The thing is, the focus on one supposedly killer statistic obscures the much bigger question raised by this report: is Test and Trace actually all that useful? Eighteen months into the pandemic the NAO report paints a picture of a system which may be much improved but is not totally effective. In the six months from November to April, for instance, NHST&T failed to reach some 100,000 people who had tested positive for Covid, let alone identify their contacts. 

These surely, are the weighty issues we ought to be discussing about a major government programme: and perhaps we would be, if we weren’t distracted by arguments about what is and isn’t a dead cat…

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.