It’s the election of on-the-hospital-floor boy! Poor on-the-hospital-floor boy! But why was OTFHB on the hospital floor? Was it a set-up? Or a set-down? Was the set-down set-up a set-up?

As the British election heads towards its final 48, the central paradox is becoming clear. Though it is a rare election of such importance that it will determine the future form of the entity whose parliament is being elected, and though the two major parties represent, for the first time in decades, genuinely different proposals for running society, the campaigns of both have been consumed not merely by a series of cheap stunts and memes, but by total confusion and conflict over what was real and what not. And wotnot.

This appears to represent a shift to what one might call a post-public society, in which spaces of shared trust have become so reduced, and atomised media engagement so dominant, that the conflict over the reality and form of the electoral message have supplanted debate about its actual content, and party policy.

It began with the televised leaders’ debate, a event due not only to Boris Johnson’s bluster meeting Corbyn’s aversion to the sparring style, but also to the cultural supersession of broadcast television itself as a public arena.

What became the main event was the Tories’ transformation of one of their own websites and Twitter accounts into a fake fact-checking website, to spin the debate duplicitously and in real time. This was caught out pretty quickly, but the question then arose: did that matter? Was the point of the exercise to be caught out, and to show that the Tories were more audacious, cheeky, spirited and simply smarter than Labour?

Labour obliged by doing what progressive parties always do these days. Rather than simply saying “Tories lie. They lie all the time about everything”, they bleated about the rules. “Ohhhhhhhh, they broke the rules. That’s not fair. You can’t do that” etc. Which was the further point of course, a trick learnt from the Trump campaign, used on Hillary right up to polling day. Get the progressives to bleat about the breaking of the rules that progressives set up to give themselves discursive-institutional power, of the sort that makes millions feel excluded. Genius.

This was part of a broader strategy by the Tory strategy teams, which continued the approach used by the Morrison campaign in Australia: flood the socialmediascape with deliberately “bad” memes — i.e. not slick and five years out of date like the left. Purposely muddy the distinction between the official message and your crazed followers.

The same thing goes for when Labour objected that video of shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer had been edited to make him look like he was gaffing in Brexit when he didn’t. When challenged, the Tories said the clip had “obviously” been edited — i.e. you’re the fool for thinking that anyone would be fooled. And you think people are fools! You elitist!

Meanwhile, the fools take it literally. What fools.

The double game was the main Tory strategy on offer, the intent to present democracy as a sham and Boris as the personified will of the people, to be simply selected, get on with it. Thus both major parties agreed to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, who is personally right-wing, but is reasonably fair and forensic one-on-one.

Corbyn duly went on and refused to apologise for his party’s alleged anti-Semitism. Boris welched on going on at all. That bit may or may not have been strategic; the difficulty for the Tories is that Boris Johnson is not the man he wants to project the image of, but the Beano version thereof.

Taken as a toff by, well, the fools, he’s the great-grandson of Turkish journalist and politician Ali Kemal, who was lynched as a traitor, and whose family got mysterious concessions (and Eton placements) for their services to the Crown (this, it should be said, is a theory of mine; the family’s Turkish roots are genuine).

He’s a man-made self who has been mimicking one role model after another to rise through the ranks. Now, there’s no-one left to mimic except himself, and so he has only just managed to get through the campaign without caving into a sort of circular self-parody, in which even he can’t take himself seriously.

This self-as-hall-of-mirrors came to the fore when floods hit the north of England and Boris was unable to offer even the most basic sympathy as prime minister (touch of the Tony Abbotts there); more so when he would not even look at the photo of Jack Williment-Barr, a boy for whom an NHS bed or even stretcher could not be found, and was forced to be treated, drip ‘n all, lying on someone’s coat.

It was pitiful, it demanded a response, and Johnson couldn’t even look at the photo. In post-Diana public emotional Britain, that’s hard to spin.

Whether it matters or not is another question. Boris and the Tories will win if enough people feel they want this election to be not an expression of preference about economic arrangements, but an act of determination about what the country is going to be. Labour will prevail if, as in 2017, polling can’t measure the impact of a mass party, with 200,000 or so doorknocking, reconstituting public life in the post-public space.

It’s Christmas for someone, and on-the-hospital-floor boy has knocked the John Lewis Christmas ad out of contention. If he ever existed at all. Or for that matter, we, the public.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW