Back in 2010, Apple had a problem. The company was taking a kicking in the media and from angry customers because of a minor flaw in its brand new iPhone 4: if you held the phone the wrong way, it lost signal. The brouhaha was even conferred with the requisite suffix, ‘antenna-gate’.
At a hastily-arranged press conference, Steve Jobs conceded: “We’re not perfect... phones aren’t perfect. But we want to make all of our users happy.”
Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, refers to this as the ‘higher ground manoeuvre’. Essentially, you can diffuse a problem by elevating it to a level where there can be no disagreement.
This worked for Apple. Pretty soon the conversation became about rival phones which also dropped calls, and the company’s market capitalisation now stands at $3.7 trillion. The manoeuvre has been less successful deployed in British politics.
The first ill-judged attempt that comes to mind is the one employed by Tim Farron in 2015. When asked if gay sex is a sin, the then-Lib Dem leader replied “we’re all sinners”. Boris Johnson and his supporters face similar problems today.
By the time you read this, the Prime Minister may have already apologised to the House of Commons following his fine for breaching his own Covid-19 regulations. But then listen carefully to what comes next.
This morning, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis – hitherto best known for acknowledging that government legislation relating to Northern Ireland customs broke international law in a ‘very specific and limited way”, gave a preview during his appearance on the Today Programme.
In it, he compared Johnson’s fixed penalty notice to a speeding fine. When he attempted to backtrack, claiming “I’m not in any way trying to equate a speeding ticket” with Covid rule-breaking, presenter Mishal Husain pointed out, “You’ve actually literally just done that.” The line to take appears to be as follows:
The Prime Minister’s only crime was to sit near a birthday cake but is very sorry. It’s not like he was partying in Ibiza(?). His actions were akin to speeding (so illegal) but also not like speeding. And, of course, Ukraine.
Johnson’s continued survival has little to do with Ukraine and everything to do with party politics. Never forget, the overriding aim of Tory MPs – like that of all elected representatives – is to win re-election. If they think they will have a better chance of doing so under a different leader (see the exits of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May), they will move against them. Labour MPs did the same to Tony Blair and unsuccessfully to Gordon Brown.
The problem is, Conservative MPs look around at the alternatives, and they seem to be either self-destructing (Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid) unpopular with the public (Liz Truss, Priti Patel) or out of favour with the Brexit right (Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat).
Johnson has undoubted electoral strengths but he has also frequently been fortunate with his enemies. A tired Ken Livingston in 2008 and 2012, a Remain-supporting Hunt in 2019 and a deeply unpopular Jeremy Corbyn that same year.
Should an obvious and palatable alternative emerge any time soon, he could be dumped forthwith. In the meantime, expect more ‘sorry not sorry’ from the Prime Minister and dissembling from backbenchers.
In the comment pages, Nimco Ali fears that in the rush to home Ukrainians, vulnerable women are being failed. Meanwhile, Defence Editor Robert Fox says Ukraine has been rewriting the rules of war with smartphone tactics, a rewriting of rules of peace and diplomacy is overdue.
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