Chris Grayling’s latest wild assertion | David Mitchell
Quiz question: what did former cabinet minister Chris Grayling describe last week as “Britain’s favourite animal”? Answers on a postcard please. Obviously it’s a tough one for various reasons. So I’ll give you a clue: it’s an animal. And if you don’t think that’s much of a clue, you don’t know much about Chris Grayling.
He makes the question so tricky. It would be hard enough just trying to decide what actually is Britain’s favourite animal, because there are different ways of looking at it. Is it favourite in terms of the animals we most enjoy interacting with? So pets. In that case, dog and cat are the frontrunners, but which? And there are other sorts of favourite animal: the ones we most want to see at the zoo, the ones we approve of most in our national imagery, the ones our children read stories about, the wild ones in the countryside. Suddenly, elephants, lions, horses, rabbits, otters, foxes, eagles, kingfishers and owls are all in the frame.
Then we must return to the fraught fact that this is something Chris Grayling said. That’s a bit of a randomiser. Or, rather, a randomiser constrained by mediocrity. We’re not looking for the answer Bob Mortimer would give, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re looking for a sensible answer either. The answer is almost certainly factually wrong – that’s classic Grayling, he’s not one to leave a mistake unmade – but, within those parameters, it’s still likely to be quite uninteresting. So not the unicorn, the dodo or the dragon. What then?
If nothing else, Grayling is a loyal Tory – and personally I suspect he’s nothing else – so there’s a chance he said that “Britain’s favourite animal” is Boris Johnson, on the basis that humans are animals and so this whole favourite animal discussion he’d got himself into could be turned into an opportunity to show loyalty to his party leader and so maybe get let back in the cabinet.
This seems quite likely, since referring to Johnson as any sort of animal, however nationally favoured, would be hugely counterproductive to Grayling’s loyalist aims, since it has connotations of inhumanity that fit much of the prime minister’s previous behaviour uncomfortably well, his sombre facial expression at the news of 100,000 deaths notwithstanding. That would be classic Grayling – really snatching gaffe from the jaws of there’s-no-reason-for-him-to-even-speak.
But Johnson isn’t the answer to the question. By the way, I apologise for writing “answers on a postcard please” in the first paragraph. It’s a horribly mirthless mirth-indicator, but I was on a bit of a cliche kick having just read that, on Tuesday, a Tory councillor said about a planning proposal: “This will put Harrogate on the map for all the wrong reasons.” It’s been a while since I last encountered that phrase and it had the comforting familiarity of recurrent backache.
It’s satisfyingly inexplicable. There’s the expression “to put a place on the map”, meaning to make it better known because of something great happening there. Being on the map is a useful side-effect of the already great thing. But why, if you want to say the thing isn’t great, is it useful still to mention the map-making process? Does that help what you’re trying to express about the bad thing?
Aren’t you implying that its badness is actually mitigated by the fact that the place where it happened will now be on the map, conferring all the convenience and commercial benefits that flow from a better-known location? It might be worth the bad thing happening to get that boost in profile.
Also there’s the unavoidable implication that the place that’s now been put on the map for all the wrong reasons was previously an irrelevant backwater. That’s quite a rude thing for a Harrogate councillor to suggest about Harrogate. Personally, I’d say it was already on the map, for perfectly respectable reasons. Perhaps not a map of the whole world, but it would certainly be on any reputable map of the north of England.
Furthermore, the thing this councillor was worried would shamefully put Harrogate on the map, presupposing that it wasn’t there already, definitely wouldn’t. It was the plan to extend Harrogate Spring Water’s bottling factory into a wood planted by local children. This has now been refused planning permission, thanks in part to the efforts of former Countryfile presenter Julia Bradbury, and also to this Tory councillor (he’s called Jim Clark – it’s time to put his name in the paper for all the right reasons), and I’m glad to hear it. But I still think Mr Clark’s fear that, had the development gone ahead, it would bring down Fred West-levels of notoriety on Harrogate is ill-founded. It’s still going to be all about that tea room.
Anyway, you don’t really have to send your answers on a postcard – in fact, please don’t – because I’m going to tell you. It’s hedgehog. Chris Grayling says Britain’s favourite animal is the hedgehog. He’s wrong, of course, though most people quite like hedgehogs and hedgehogs won a 2016 Royal Society of Biology poll to choose the country’s favourite mammal from a prepared list that didn’t include cat, dog, rabbit, hamster or mouse. But he said it because he’s doing his best to save Britain’s hedgehogs. That’s them screwed, then.
To be fair, hedgehog numbers were plummeting even before Grayling tried to help. He wants to amend the environment bill to protect their nesting sites. I think this is a good idea even though hedgehogs aren’t Britain’s favourite animal. Tree-hugger that I am, I think it’s OK to prevent the extinction of more than one organism per nation.
According to the largest ever survey into views on climate change, published last week, two-thirds of people around the world, and 81% of the British, think it’s a global emergency. That’s good news. And it’s better news still if Tories like Jim Clark and Chris Grayling are among the 81%, even if they express their concern in the only way they know how: by linking it to the honour of Harrogate or saying things that aren’t really true.