Katy Balls

No. 10’s latest BBC row is a helpful distraction

No. 10’s latest BBC row is a helpful distraction
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How do you move on from a week of torrid headlines over a power struggle between senior No. 10 aides and a recently departed Chancellor? The old Tory playbook – mastered by Boris Johnson's former election guru Lynton Crosby – would suggest throwing a dead cat. The dead cat strategy used when a party wishes to change the conversation by any means necessary. The idea is that by the time it's done people will stop talking about the thing you want to move away from and instead become distracted and effectively go: 'Jeez, mate, there's a dead cat on the table!'

It's worth remembering this device when considering that we are in day three of No. 10's latest BBC row. Pundits, broadcasters and some Tories have gone public to express concern over a report in the Sunday Times quoting a senior Downing Street source stating that the government is ready to 'whack' the BBC licence fee. Today there are reports that not everyone in No. 10 is on board with getting rid of it entirely – the Times says that while Dominic Cummings favours abolishing the licence fee, Boris Johnson would prefer to simply reform the BBC.

But this is in many ways not what one could describe as a pressing issue. The government has already launched a review to look at decriminalising the licence fee. But to abolish it is an issue much further down the line. Charter Renewal for the BBC isn't until 2027 so it is not in this government's power to abolish the licence fee even if everyone agreed this was the best way forward. To do that, they would need to do what no governing party has done in UK history and win a fifth term – complete with a sizeable majority. By this point, the media landscape, too, could look rather different.

It's true that this government is heavily sceptical of the BBC in its current form. The Prime Minister said back in 2012 that reforming the BBC was crucial to the success of any Tory government: 'If we can't change the Beeb, we can't change the country'. It's also the case that this is a Downing Street operation that relishes a fight. No. 10 has taken action so far by boycotting certain programmes and launching a review. The timing of Tony Hall's departure as director general is a source of frustration in 10 Downing Street as it means his successor will be chosen by current chairman Sir David Clementi, rather than the future chair selected by the Prime Minister. One of the big decisions Johnson's government will be able to make is on Clementi's replacement – expect someone much more on No. 10's wavelength when it comes to free markets and competition.

These are the main areas in which Johnson and his team can wield influence in the coming years. Abolishing the licence fee is an issue for the government if it wins another term. Not that this will stop government figures making hay. BBC-bashing tends to play well to the Tory base and rile the metropolitan bubble so loathed by senior No. 10 aides. It guarantees days of coverage. And it's a helpful media distraction for a government with lots of difficult, more pressing tasks to be getting on with behind the scenes.