The attack of the killer cucumbers (or not)

When everyone actually <em>is</em> going to die, no one will believe the tabloids.

Bloody foreign bacteria, coming over here, infecting us. Yes, the latest panic-porn scare story being fed to us is the tale of what the Daily Express refers to, with typically unhyperbolic restraint, as KILLER FOOD BUG.

The new strain of e.coli, initially thought to be hidden in Spanish cucumbers, caused a bit of a problem for our beloved papers. It's hard to panic about something that's happening in another country, a few rogue cucumbers killing off some Germans. Where's the jeopardy in that? But now things are serious. Now the big red button has been well and truly pushed. Because it's coming over here.

MUTANT E.COLI IS IN BRITAIN, shrieked the Daily Mail this morning, with all the calmness of the housekeeper in the Tom & Jerry cartoons standing on a stool. This is the story, whether we like it or not, whether it's scary or not: the deadly bug is coming here, to infect us and kill us. 7 BRITS HIT BY 'KILLER' CUCUMBERS, roared the Daily Star, ignoring the evidence that the new strain of bacteria is not believed to have come from cucumbers after all, but pointing out that now British people have been infected instead of Germans, it's time to get serious.

It's not unlike other stories and narratives our popular papers like to peddle - foreign invaders, crossing the border at will, causing widespread destruction. Sometimes it's immigrants; sometimes it's scary invading critters like ladybirds or jellyfish or squirrels; today it's bacteria.

This year's Icelandic ash cloud proved disappointingly unapocalyptic, so this scare has come along at the right time, with just enough promise of peril and just enough anxiety about our shores being invaded by foreign nasties to keep us all interested. Perhaps this is the scare that will have legs and become the new BSE; I think that's the hope, anyway. All too often, these things come and go, and disappear off the radar pretty rapidly when they aren't sufficiently terrifying.

You may not remember tabloid panic about campylobacter, back in 2009, for example - but that made the front pages. The Express splashed with it back in October that year and the Mail chipped in too. "Killer chickens on our high streets" has been kicked around every now and then since, entirely coincidentally happening on relatively slow news days when there isn't much else - asylum seekers, the BBC, political correctness having definitely gone mad - to worry about.

Now it could be the case, and I'm not saying it isn't, that there genuinely is something really worth worrying about with the latest scare. But it's hard to tell. We get these panic stories force fed to us, like Robert Morley having his beloved pet poodles stuffed down his throat by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood; and it's difficult, as a punter, to know which are the ones that should cause us genuine concern.

Perhaps it would help if papers could have a code, a "safe word" that would make us realise that this is a properly scary thing, rather than a pretend scary thing - maybe if they wrote the headlines in blood red, that would mean this story really is something to worry about, rather than something to worry a bit about then forget about. "You know all the times we said this or that might kill you or give you cancer, and we were just kind of exaggerating? Well this one is really dangerous, really dangerous, honest", they could say, to put us at ease - or rather not. The irony is, when Godzilla does turn up at Dover, and the tabloids warn us, we'll all think they were pulling our legs.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.