On Monday, before the dribbles of an elongated cabinet reshuffle had begun to eke out of number 10, government social media accounts were already at work. Just before 11:30AM, Theresa May’s Instagram account had shared a photo of her meeting one of her constituents: "Blitz", a dog she had "bumped into" that morning (the caption complete with a doggy-paw emoji). Earlier that morning – before Justine Greening had even checked her emails – the Foreign Office was already tweeting videos concerning the no-doubt important, but fairly niche, issue of the illegal trade of bear bile.
The day before, May had used an appearance on Andrew Marr’s show to clearly state that there will be no vote on fox-hunting during this Parliament.
This is nothing new. Lately, animal welfare and environmentalism is seemingly the only thing the government wants to talk about. They want you to know they like animals, that they've heard all about the evils of microbeads, that they are going to plant loads of trees. The Tories want you to know that if you listen really carefully you can hear the wind whispering, that there is a song on the glistening lips of the babbling brook.
This newfound Cuddly Toryism started in earnest with a PR disaster. In November of last year there was widespread anger across social media when it was reported that Conservative MPs had just voted overwhelmingly that animals couldn’t feel pain. This assessment was an overreaction – in reality, they had voted against the specific wording of an EU treaty which describes animals as "sentient beings", arguing that this fact was already covered by domestic law – but, by then, the damage was done.
This public misunderstanding was a further blow to the party’s already bad relationship with wildlife. Polling suggests Theresa May’s promise of a vote on the fox-hunting ban in her general election manifesto made a greater impression on voters than many of the party's headline policies. In fact, it has long been an area in which many Conservatives are wildly out of step with the public mood – an Ipsos MORI poll in 2016 concluded that 84 percent of the public were in favour of keeping the ban. The party also faced criticism for failing to continue David Cameron’s 2015 pledge to "press for a total ban on ivory sales".
In response to the bad press, MPs carpet-bombed timelines with videos of them cradling pups, and assurances that they felt nothing but warmth and compassion towards animals of all stripes. Since then, what presumably started as an effort to counter damaging perceptions of Tories as fox-killers and elephant-slayers has become a party-wide rebrand: ivory is back on the agenda in a big way; before Christmas, Theresa May was speaking out against "cruel puppy breeding"; and in a recent video-roll of the government’s achievements, pride of place was given to the reintroduction of beavers into the wild.
Since the general election, animal welfare and environmental issues have been consistently championed by Conservative MPs across the country, from all departments. From the Foreign Office committing to end illegal wildlife trades, to the day in December when pretty much every single Tory MP tweeted a bombardment of pre-prepared graphics about the new series of Blue Planet, the messaging has been relentless and blatant. At the time of writing, the top three tweets on Theresa May’s personal account were all about environmental issues: microbeads, plastic bag usage and plans to grow a new forest in Northern England.
Central to all of this has been "Green Brexit" pioneer Michael Gove, who – since becoming Environment Secretary – has been re-birthed as Silvanus, god of the forest and protector of the fields. He has surprised many of his would-be critics by embracing the role and confidently outlining a number of new policies – from CCTV in slaughterhouses to a ban on bee-harming pesticides. Whether genuine or not, he has become the poster-boy of the reinvention – a volte-face from hard-edged, ruthless Conservatism, to tweeting about polar bears.
The trouble is, it's all happened too quickly. Unlike the "hug a husky" Cameron years, the new Cuddly Toryism comes across less like a measured response to climate change and more like performative animal worshipping. Again, this is a party which, before the general election, was putting the fox-hunting ban back on the table and quietly doing away with a commitment to end the ivory trade. For all the talk of wild beavers, there has been no real mention of fracking – the environmentally-destructive drilling for shale gas Tories have been hugely enthusiastic about – nor was Theresa May capable of anything close to real condemnation when Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
The tweets have been too regular, and the interest heightened too suddenly, for this to seem like anything other than a deliberate distraction from everything else the government wants us to ignore. As a PR technique, it is eerily reminiscent of far right group Britain First's tactic of posting about animal cruelty in order to improve their Facebook engagement.
Then again, at this stage, can you blame the Tories? From housing, to healthcare, to education, to transport, to social care – there isn’t a single aspect of public life where the government aren’t either failing or irretrievably weak. Turtles and kittens are pretty much the only policy areas where they can make bold, positive claims without alienating either their establishment base or the new voters they so desperately need. The Tories need to appeal to young people, and while they can't offer meaningful change, they can offer pictures of dolphins.
The upshot is that our government has resorted to the same tactics as guys who pose with puppies on Tinder, highlighting once again there where cuteness treads, the hot breath of desperation is never far behind.