Opinion

To understand Britain’s Rwanda policy you have to understand Boris Johnson and dead cats – Gavin Esler

The Conservative Party and Rishi Sunak’s government are classic victims of Johnson’s politics of distraction

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a columnist for The Irish News and a former presenter of Newsnight and author of books including Britain Is Better Than This.

no pussyfooting around: Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson with Larry the 10 Downing Street cat        Picture: UK Prime Minister/PA
Former prime minister Boris Johnson with Larry the 10 Downing Street cat

To understand Britain’s Rwanda policy you first have to understand that it began not as a policy but as a distraction. And to understand how the politics of distraction works it’s as well to consult the expert.

The expert in British politics is Boris Johnson. In a 2013 Daily Telegraph column, Johnson wrote about an unnamed “Australian friend” – widely assumed to be Lynton Crosby, who worked as an adviser on Johnson’s successful campaign to become London mayor. That “friend” advised Johnson how to handle a discussion when “the facts are overwhelmingly against you” by changing the subject dramatically and theatrically.

The friend suggested “throwing a dead cat on the table”. Not literally of course – but you come up with something to distract everyone from the problem that you cannot solve.

Lynton Crosby, who acted as David Cameron's general election campaign director, is knighted by the Prince of Wales with a sword on his shoulder during a ceremony on a red carpet at Buckingham Palace
Investitures at Buckingham Palace Lynton Crosby, who acted as David Cameron's general election campaign director, is knighted by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace (Anthony Devlin/PA)

As Johnson wrote: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Fast forward to April 2022, the dying days of Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street, with concerns about the government’s inability to – as they would later put it – “Stop The Boats”, preventing crossings of the Channel by refugees and asylum seekers in small boats from France.



As a result of Johnson’s Brexit failures, cooperation with the French authorities became difficult and returning asylum seekers almost impossible. Johnson came up with his “dead cat” – namely to send people he claimed were “illegal” immigrants to Rwanda.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he will do "whatever it takes" to stop small boat crossings after the Supreme Court ruled that a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would do "whatever it takes" to meet a pledge to stop small boat crossings after the Supreme Court ruled that a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful

He could have picked almost anywhere. Madagascar? Antarctica? Paraguay? But he picked Rwanda as his distraction from a problem which he could not solve.

Johnson understood distractions very well. You may recall that at another moment of difficulty in June 2019, he gave a televised “interview” to someone called Ross Kempsell in which Johnson spoke of his “hobby” of making model buses out of wine boxes. Have you ever seen any of these model buses? Me neither. But if you subsequently Googled Boris Johnson and buses, instead of seeing endless stories about his lie on the Brexit bus about the £350 million a week to boost the NHS, you would instead see the story about Johnson’s incredible hobby.

Ross Kempsell, a former political director of the Conservative Party, wearing robes in the House of Lords
Ross Kempsell, a former political director of the Conservative Party, was elevated to the House of Lords in Boris Johnson's much criticised resignation honours list

Kempsell, by the way, was not a television interviewer. He was political director of the Conservative Party and director of the Conservative Research Department and nowadays – at 31 years of age – Johnson made him a member of the House of Lords for the rest of his life.

And that brings us back to the Rwanda policy. It was never a policy. It was a distraction, and it has distracted the Conservative party ever since.

Boris Johnson would never have been daft enough to do what Rishi Sunak has done and claim the distraction is a “flagship” immigration policy. The matter is now with the House of Lords, and despite costs that will run into millions, not one failed asylum seeker has ended up in Rwanda. It’s reasonable to assume that none ever will end up there since the Lords may delay the bill until the general election.

Boris Johnson’s ability to distract and divide was a wonderful campaign tool. It won him the Brexit vote. It brought him to Downing Street. Now the Conservative party itself – and the Sunak government – have fallen for Johnson’s politics of distraction

But Boris Johnson’s ability to distract and divide was a wonderful campaign tool. It won him the Brexit vote. It brought him to Downing Street. Now the Conservative party itself – and the Sunak government – have fallen for Johnson’s politics of distraction. It could be a TV sketch for a satire show like The Thick of It.

Unfortunately it is real life in Westminster these days, when a distraction becomes a policy.

:: Gavin Esler is author most recently of Britain Is Better Than This.