Satire campaign ruffles politicians' feathers ahead of UK vote

Led by Donkey's use of humour to expose politicians' lies through viral visuals has found a massive audience in a British public increasingly distrustful of the political establishment

Twitter @jimrobbins

Satire campaign ruffles politicians' feathers ahead of UK vote

There’s a heady atmosphere in certain quarters of Britain’s General Election. Not among the Conservatives, obviously. Their best ploy now is to accuse Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, of laziness—this from the party that gave us a prime minister who thought combing his hair was a chore too far.

But the atmosphere is certainly pretty heady in the Labour party, and with some reason, when every poll predicts a bigger landslide victory than the last. There’s even a heady atmosphere among the Liberal Democrats, personified by their bungee-jumping leader, Ed Davey.

Yet even these parties cannot compare with the heady atmosphere that’s been swirling around the venues hired by Reform UK to accommodate the pronouncements of Nigel Farage, Britain’s homegrown beer-swilling, fag-smoking, tell-it-like-it-is populist. For Nigel, things have gone so well that he’s glad he gave up his plans for a holiday and decided to lead the party he owns, unceremoniously dumping its previous leader and main benefactor, Richard Tice. Mere mortals stand aside, for when it comes to show business for ugly people, Nigel is easily the ugliest of them all.

In fact, Nigel is pure charisma, a natural man of the people, so fluent even Jason Cowley of the New Statesman—a left-leaning magazine— had to admit it. He is a coruscating and bedazzling personality who, quite literally but also metaphorically, has brought fireworks to the table of drab old British politics.

And yet, truth to tell, even Nigel has not always had it easy over the past weeks. When his comments surfaced about how the West had provoked Putin into invading Ukraine, accompanied by somewhat hackneyed warnings against poking bears, the atmosphere suddenly became less heady. After all, even the laziest prime minister the country has ever seen had enough energy to fly over to Kyiv and support President Zelenskyy.

Not long after his onward progress encountered this irritating setback, Nigel was to be seen in a hall in Essex—the county contains the seat he is contesting, in Clacton—haranguing the faithful on the theme of education. He was standing there, unsupported by notes or autocues or even a lectern to lean on, extemporising with all the fluency Jason Cowley so admires, when a banner slowly unfurled above his head. It was a moment of hushed horror such as hadn’t been seen since Banksy’s picture shredded itself in a famous London auction house. The banner showed a picture of Vladimir Putin smiling broadly, thumbs up, and underneath the words ‘I (heart) Nigel.’

Despite the fury of the no longer heady Reform supporters and their cries of “Take it down!” the offending picture and message hovered there, in full view, for what must have seemed like an eternity. Even Nigel was initially speechless. Then, with typical faux outrage, he proposed that someone on the venue's staff be sacked.

'Thermonuclear hypocrisy'

The real perpetrators of this ‘outrage’ have been doing something similar for five years. They are called Led by Donkeys, an abbreviated version of the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ referring to the dependable British Tommies who were sent to their deaths in the Great War (1914-8) by their incompetent generals.

Four men, two of whom worked for Greenpeace, dreamt up the idea back in December 2018 of opposing Brexit by quoting comments by its champions, the so-called Brexiteers, and making them look at best like hypocrites: one of them has described their ‘thermonuclear hypocrisy.’ At worst, they would look, well, asinine.

It all began as a guerilla operation. The men found old tweets by their victims and noticed that their format was identical to the proportions of a billboard. After blowing the tweets up to street size, they then superimposed them on existing ads.

One of the first of these superimpositions featured a quote from Michael Gove, the notorious Brexiteer, who had said, among many other things, that Brexit would defy the doomsters and that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

The legend persists that Gove is the towering intellect of the Tory party. Then again, on reflection, who can doubt it? Led by Donkeys chose to quote him saying “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and can choose the path we want.”

There were other quotes of this ilk, all concurring that Brexit was going to be an absolute walk in the park, a doddle, a triumph of proud British values over European skulduggery. David Davis, for instance – said by Dominic Cummings to be as thick as mince – confidently asserted, “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”

Viral campaigns

The guerrilla campaign was just the beginning. With the assistance of viral visibility on social media, Led by Donkeys have progressed to crowdfunding and the purchase of their own billboards. Perhaps the high point of this method was a collaboration with Coldwar Steve, master of satirical photomontage, in Glastonbury 2019. The resulting image shows the various Brexiteers in what appears to be a landfill site.

To one side stands a billboard-within-a-billboard bearing a quote from Boris Johnson: ‘There is no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal.’ They called their ethos one of the mind bomb – the striking image as a way of reaching the public on an emotional level.

Nowadays, Led by Donkeys have expanded their means of communicating to include projections – notably on the white cliffs of Dover, or the Houses of Parliament – vans, designs on beaches and fields, vast crowd flags. They used quotes from Johnson to expose his hypocrisy over Covid. In response to the disastrous and brief premiership of Liz Truss, they erected an oversized blue plaque in Tufton Street, the location of her favourite economics think tank, the one that had dared think the unthinkable. It read, very simply: ‘The UK was crashed here.’

Another medium they have used is video. In a parody of Line of Duty, they put Boris Johnson in front of a panel of police officers and interrogated his decisions and conduct. They produced a ten-minute ‘biopic’ of Rishi Sunak, which described his career prior to becoming an MP, the way he managed to become richer than the king, and his links to the financial crisis in 2008.

They have even extended their activities to undercover investigative journalism. In 2023, they invented a fake South Korean company and managed to dupe two leading Conservative politicians, Kwasi Kwarteng and Matt Hancock, into agreeing to work for £10,000 per day.

There is no way of measuring the impact of this kind of activism on the public psyche. The British electorate has grown increasingly hostile towards the Conservative party as a result of countless scandals and the destructive effects of Liz Truss, whose term of office famously failed to outlast a lettuce.

How much of that cynicism was there anyway is hard to say. The direction of flow might even have been the reverse, and Led by Donkeys were being led by lions all along. But as a running commentary on the chaos of Tory rule, they have few equals.

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