UK Politics

The Art of the Political Grifter

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Dominic Cummings’ interview with Laura Kuenssberg made headlines recently, as Boris Johnson’s former aide spoke about several incidents damaging to the government, including the Prime Minister’s resistance to a second lockdown and his insistence to carry on meeting the Queen throughout the pandemic.

Whilst the interview dominated media coverage for a while, it is difficult to see how it would change people’s opinions about the government and the response to the pandemic. It only confirmed the opinion of those critical of the Conservatives and was dismissed by their supporters.

The failure to convert this latter half lies with Cummings, who has failed to restore any personal credibility since his dismissal nearly a year ago. His revelations about the ineptitude of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock can be discarded as mere sour grapes from an ex-employee. Refusing to take significant action whilst in office adds to his spurned image. However, what does more harm to his cause is that this all looks as if it is part of a larger grift.

Substack

If you were to visit Cummings’ new Substack blog, where he lays out his time in office, information about the government’s response to the pandemic and various Q&A sessions, you would be greeted immediately by a paywall, asking for £10 a month to access the content. You can click through and read some of the articles without paying, but the majority of the content is for subscribers only. 

Now, whilst Cummings has said that information about his experience in government will remain free, this content is almost dangled as a carrot for a subscription. Whilst there is nothing wrong with charging for your work, this hurts his credibility because people simply see him as someone looking to enrich themselves through placing interesting stories in front of the media without affecting any actual change and for this reason he fails to convince his critics. Part of this resistance could be due the history of other political figures making similar attempts at financial gain through their revelations.

Lord Ashcroft

Whilst grifts have always been a part of politics, it is only in the age of social media that they have been taken to another level, where the immediacy of reactions and ability to easily disseminate content makes it perfect for someone looking to get their story out and make some easy money. The first person to properly use this tool was (former) Lord Ashcroft, whose 2015 bookCall me Dave: The unauthorised biography of David Cameron’ was responsible for ‘Piggate’, a political scandal mocked endlessly on social media.

Having been rejected for a post in the cabinet by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, it was clear that Ashcroft was out for revenge, and used people’s dislike of the government to his advantage, both financial and political. Excerpts published in the Daily Mail were clearly used to create a furore to help shift copies. The book itself offered little substance or any of the important information that Ashcroft could have provided from his time in politics but sold well. Its serialisation in the Mail and unpopularity of the PM meant it was publicised a lot more than such an autobiography normally would be.

Donald Trump

Ashcroft’s memoir began a long line of politicians using anger towards a government for their own self-promotion and financial benefit, seen clearly with the many exiles from the Trump presidency. For nearly four years US media was filled with a procession of ex-members of the administration touting books that are supposedly tell-all accounts of life under the President. Andrew McCabe, John Bolton, Anthony Scaramucci, Michael Cohen and Omarosa Manigault Newman were all welcomed and believed by mainstream media simply because they were reinforcing everyone’s dislike of President Trump.

Each of the people listed above had the means and opportunity to prevent many of the negative events described in their books but failed to do so at the time, something rarely mentioned in the segments discussing their revelations. Even then none of them provided enough material to actually confirm their accusations, meaning that like Cummings they could be dismissed as fired employees airing their grievances, another fact ignored by media coverage.

What next?

If Ashcroft and the Trump administration have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t simply accept the memoirs of ex-members of government simply because we dislike the administration they worked for. Cummings has pledged to make material regarding the government’s response to the pandemic free, but he still hosts Q&A sessions with paid subscribers where similar things are discussed. Exiled advisers and ministers who claim to have damaging information regarding the government should be held accountable by prominent media institutions and not be given airtime if they are withholding critical material for their own personal gain, so that their motives cannot be questioned or dismissed by those in power. 

Furthermore, when such claims are made the media must demand that evidence is provided so that they can be relied upon credible. Finally, revealing everything after you’ve left the halls of power should not negate any criticism for actions undertaken whilst in government, as seen with ex-Trump staffers or Cummings himself. As many within the Johnson administration will undoubtedly try to rebuild their public image in the wake of the pandemic, either through their own memoirs or interviews, we must ensure that their involvement in the events of the past year are not overlooked simply because they now align with our own criticisms.

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