Did you know the UK government had a Flickr account? A fast-moving succession of unexplained photographs create an impression that things involving Tory politicians are happening, at a very high level, and at some speed, but offer no explanation of what they mean. It is perfect – the taxpayer-funded, vanity-engineered photo-diary of a group of globe-trotting lightweights, hopelessly out of their depth, the subject of international ridicule and domestic contempt, making the sort of shapes and faces they imagine appear significant. Arrive in conference room holding document. Wear face mask at railway station. Gesture towards thing. Don helmet near scaffolding. Laugh with peasant. Concerned expression. Hi-vis jacket. Hat.
I’m filing this column 36 hours early. I have been able to snap up a holiday abandoned last week by a politician keen to be seen as taking Ukraine seriously, in a PR move already known as the Reverse Raab. (Indeed, it is rumoured that some politicians who weren’t actually on holiday quickly arranged one so they could be seen to return from it.) By the time you read these words they will be five days old and anything could have happened. Madness. Madness. War.
In the past two weeks our horse-heating apology-doormat education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has argued about his leader’s obvious dishonesty with some small schoolchildren who found out about it on Newsround; the police are suddenly Dickless; and, in an act of heroic hypocrisy, the tonally inconsistent comedian Jimmy Carr was condemned as “deeply disturbing” for his Holocaust material by the prime minister, Boris Piccaninny-Watermelon Muslim-Letterbox Tank-Topped-Bumboys Romanian-Vampires Cocaine-Event Spiritual-Worth Gay-Marriage-Three-Men-and-a-Dog Jimmy-Savile Wallpaper Johnson, who is presumably an expert in the area of monetised, attention-grabbing offence. Newspaper columnist satirists’ attempts to make jokes about current events are like trying to nail eels to a curtain. The curtain is ruined and the eels die.
As I begin this column it’s Sunday 13 February and last time I looked at UK government Flickr it was mid-afternoon and Liz Truss was standing with her mouth open in front of a tapestry of some lakes while Sergei Lavrov scratched his head, like an itchy chimp, and who can blame him? Now it’s 6am on Monday and defence secretary Ben Wallace is making a gesture of judgmental evaluation towards a fur-covered microphone, as if accusing someone at the British embassy in Moscow of attempting to mock him by providing it. Was this where he diplomatically brought up appeasing Hitler, in a place that lost 27 million people in the second world war? The irony is, if Wallace was able to get round the table with Putin he would find they have much common ground – a homophobic opposition to gay rights, a fondness for the dark art of the groundless political smear, and early onset baldness – but the UK government Flickr account has instead given the impression that Wallace is talking tough with some furry audio equipment.
I scroll back five days to the famous Liz Truss fur hat fiasco. There’s the foreign secretary framed by a wooden doorway, against a backdrop of serious Soviet architecture, looking like a bit-player in the sort of 80s espionage drama where Alexei Sayle would steal the show as a KGB pastry chef; the notorious Red Square fur hat sequence portrays Truss as a contemplative loner cutting her be-hatted swathe through the diplomatic landscape, trailed only, presumably, by her photographer, her makeup person, her stylist, her milliner, some Peta protesters, and one of those men who hold those big circles of silver foil.
A day earlier, we see Michael Gove, on a “Levelling Up Visit to Birkenhead and Liverpool”, the latter city one Margaret Thatcher’s government notoriously wanted to put into “managed decline”. There’s a thin blue line between levelling up a red wall seat and simply levelling it. As Gove passes a hair salon, the awkward obscuring of an aide’s grey bonce behind his raised fist makes it look as if the secretary of state for levelling up is addressing a small furry rodent, asleep in his hand. “Nosey Nip gives me all my policy advice. He lives in a tin in my anorak.”
On 3 February, transport secretary Grant Shapps and Michael Portillo, the Cuprinol Wood Goblin, are on a bench at Marylebone station laughing uproariously at an immediately discredited railway policy announcement. In all four shots a delighted Portillo models a bright purple blazer, but Shapps’s stylist has given him a bright red blazer for two shots, and a black one for the others. Or perhaps black blazer Shapps is the real Shapps, while red blazer Shapps is Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath or Sebastian Fox, the pseudonymous identities under which Shapps shepherded dodgy get-rich-quick schemes.
At Hammersmith academy, on 6 January, stallion-snuggler Zahawi makes menacing claw-like gestures towards a year 7 Newsround viewer soon to become his chief ideological opponent. And on Monday, former culture secretary Sajid Javid visits Willows care home, and calls two elderly Michael Bublé ticket holders, who paid five times over the odds, “chattering middle-class champagne socialists who have no interest in helping the common working man earn a decent living by acting as a middleman”.
Lacking context and looking cynically stage-managed, the UK government’s Flickr photographs can be made to tell almost any story, surely a gift to those endlessly creative members of the public who manufacture the satirical memes that delight us daily. Michael Gove is alone on a windswept pier; Steve Barclay stands in front of a projected slide headed “Arp Spoofing”; Liz Truss jogs at speed over Brooklyn Bridge, but cannot outrun the judgment of history. UK government Flickr has given you the tools, internet mischief makers. Now do your work. On the other hand, why bother? The Tories’ Flickr account’s vainglorious follies herald the arrival of Britain’s first self-ridiculing government.