A Liberal Democrat MP has taken aim at the “masters of spin” for increasingly manipulating the news cycle.
Richard Foord said that what began as political spin has now morphed into a practice bordering on deceit, saying “it is time to end the dead cat strategy”.
Mr Foord’s comments came as MPs debated two petitions relating to honesty in politics, which called on the Government to introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence.
While the Tiverton and Honiton MP said he worried about the “idea of opposition politicians simply getting locked up for telling the truth”, he criticised the Government for employing the “dead cat strategy” during the partygate scandal.
Deadcatting is a political tactic where a shocking or distracting topic is introduced to divert attention from a more damaging subject, often used to steer discourse away from negative media attention.
Speaking in Westminster Hall, Mr Foord said: “On April 12, 2022, the Metropolitan Police served a fixed penalty notice on the then prime minister (Boris Johnson) and the then chancellor of the Exchequer (Rishi Sunak) for attending a rule-breaking event in the Cabinet Office in June 2020.
“Newspapers were full of that dramatic news when, just two days later, the Government announced the so-called Rwanda partnership.
“Whatever you think about the Rwanda partnership, the £120-million scheme that would see some asylum claimants having their claims processed while they were in Rwanda, it is, at the very least, newsworthy.
“The point here is that we have been subject increasingly over the last couple of decades to something that started out as spin that has since become verging on the dishonest.
“So, if I take you back to 11 September 2001, we heard the phrase that it was a ‘good day to bury bad news’.
“At the time, that was symbolic of the worst aspects of the dark arts of spin. But what we have seen since that time is the development of this into an election campaigning technique. We now hear about the dead cat strategy.
“‘Dead catting’ is the idea that when something inconvenient is in the news headlines, the masters of spin might slap a dead cat in front of the public, a shocking announcement to divert attention away from those inconvenient headlines of the day.
“I think it is time to end ‘a good day to bury bad news’. It is time to end the dead cat strategy. It is a good day to bury the dead cat. We need more honesty in public life.”
Elsewhere during the debate, the SNP’s Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) highlighted the limitations of existing mechanisms like the MPs’ code of conduct and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Urging the Government to make it a criminal offence to lie to Parliament, he said: “Parliamentary privilege grants members the right to speak freely without fear of legal liability or other reprisal.
“However that privilege has been abused and that abuse goes against our code of conduct with little repercussion.
“We should grab this opportunity to examine the challenges and complexities of this matter and come together to find a solution that works.
“Legislation should be brought forward that prevents the trust between Government and those who are governed being further eroded.
“This should be done at the earliest opportunity, so we can move the backward nature of this Parliament forward.”
Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart said he did not think the route set out by the petitions was appropriate.
He said: “If honesty is one of the core values of our system, then parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech within Parliament is one of the absolute pillars of the modern constitution.”
He went on: “If we were to accept the ideas put down, we would be accepting, nay, we would be sanctioning, the legal intimidation of MPs in the House of Commons.
“I am afraid that is something that this Government will not support.”