Catgate: why telling the truth is a bad idea in politics

Something about this image puts me in mind of those shots of hippos fighting in a waterhole on Attenborough documentaries
Something about this image puts me in mind of those shots of hippos fighting in a waterhole on Attenborough documentaries

“Catgate”. Help me out here, I want to see if I understand it properly. Is this basically the sequence of events?

• Theresa May, the Home Secretary, says something untrue
Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, points out that it is untrue
• Commentators call for Ken Clarke to be fired

Is this right? Politician A gets facts wrong – in a major speech at a party conference – but politician B may face the sack for correcting her?

There is of course a bit more to it than that. After the “catflap” (© all newspapers), Downing Street came out in support of Theresa May. The one who got it wrong in the first place. Ken Clarke, to his eternal credit, didn’t lie down quietly like he was supposed to, but continued to point out that it was nonsense. And, apparently, in party politics, once the leader has said something is so, then it is so, regardless of whether pesky reality agrees.

The fact is, Theresa May was wrong. There never was someone who could not be deported because he had a pet cat. It goes back to a Bolivian student (not an illegal immigrant) who applied to stay in this country. In his application, he does indeed mention a pet cat. But he was granted leave to remain in Britain as “the unmarried partner of a person present and settled in the United Kingdom“, not as the owner of a British cat. Under UK Border Agency rules (not the Human Rights Act), if a couple has lived together for two years in “a genuine and subsisting relationship akin to marriage”, they have a right to stay, regardless of whether they’re married.

The cat came into it because it was, apparently, mentioned in the original application to stay in Britain (not an appeal against deportation), and because in an appeal against an earlier judgment the Home Office argued that too much “weight placed on the appellant having to leave behind not only his partner but also their joint cat”. But that is not why the application was upheld. It appears to have hit the headlines largely because of a joke line at the end: “The determination is upheld and the cat need no longer fear having to adapt to Bolivian mice”.

This isn’t a question about whether or not the Human Rights Act should be reformed. It’s about whether there was really an  illegal immigrant (no) who avoided deportation (no) because of a cat (no) under the Human Rights Act (no). (One newspaper argues otherwise, but even they state that “the Bolivian … won on different [ie non-cat-related] grounds at a later hearing”.) Mrs May was wrong; Mr Clarke was right. But Mr Cameron has backed the wrong one.

What’s really worrying is that this isn’t an isolated incident. Mr Cameron himself mentioned two stories in his speech which could be said to have a loose relationship with the facts. One was: “A couple of weeks ago I was up in the flat, going through some work before the start of the day and I saw this EU directive. Do you know what it was about? Whether people with diabetes should be allowed to drive.” No, it’s not. It’s about whether people who suffer regular episodes of hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar, which can lead to blackouts – should be allowed to drive. Some diabetic charities have expressed concern that the directive is too strict in applying to people who suffer them while asleep, but surely everyone agrees that people who are likely to fall unconscious should not be allowed to drive.

The other: “I was told recently about a school that wanted to buy a set of highlighter pens. But with the pens came a warning. Not so fast – make sure you comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.” I dare say they did come with a health warning. Highlighter pens often contain xylene and toluene – commonly abused and highly toxic solvents. It’s not “highlighter pens” that are dangerous, it’s these – actually dangerous – chemicals. Solvent abuse is a lot more deadly than Miaow Miaow or ecstacy.

There’s more. Eric Pickles told the Conference: “Did you know… if you want to take out a copy of Mills and Boon from your local library…….In some places you’re asked to fill out a sex survey on your private life”. No, I did not know that. What does it mean? Does it mean that every time you want to take out a slightly racy book, you have to fill out a form in which you rate your prowess, or admit you’ve had secret thoughts about donkeys? Because that would be amazingly weird. Or does it mean that, when you join a library, you are asked to fill out a form about who you are (name, address, age etc) which in some places has a question like “Are you married, single, divorced, in a civil partnership or cohabiting?” I suspect the latter.

(Incidentally Pickles has form: in November last year he declared “The War on Christmas is over, and the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminos deserve to be in the dustbin of history.” The Winterval myth just refuses to die.)

I don’t want this to be a party political thing. I don’t doubt that you could find Labour politicians who have said equally nonsensical things to pander to their troops. But it is a sad thing that, to do well in the Conservative Party at the moment, you just have to rip off the headline and top two pars of the latest “Health and Safety/Political Correctness Gone Mad” story, ignore the facts of the issue, and quote it in a Conference speech. It’s even sadder that if you have the guts to point this out, people call for your head.


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