The two Tory candidates are barking up the wrong tree, even if we’re in the dog days, says Roger Ratcliffe

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For me, just thinking of the expression “dog days” conjures up a hot afternoon in August. Traditionally the words are applied to this time of year because we’re supposed to feel drained of energy and devoid of motivation. Apparently the name goes all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman astrologers discovering that the planet Sirius, also known as the “Dog Star”, rose next to the sun in high summer.

Dog days overlap with another summer phenomenon, which in the UK we call the “silly season”. This is when there’s such a shortage of proper news that newspapers print ridiculous stories; okay, more ridiculous than usual. Even serious papers are not immune to this practice, and one August I was assigned by the Sunday Times to write a front page story about copulating giant pandas at London Zoo.

So this month be prepared for all kinds of craziness being reported. Perhaps Nessie the Loch Ness monster will pop up to say hello, which has happened in the past, or there might be sea-serpents spotted off Blackpool or a UFO seen landing on Ilkley Moor.

Holder of the Most Ridiculous Silly Season Story title has to be the Daily Mail, which some years back carried a report about villages with unfortunate place names, citing the examples of Shitterton in Dorset, Crapstone in Devon and Brokenwind in Aberdeenshire.

The US’s equivalent is the dull-sounding “Slow News Season”. The Germans prefer “Cucumber Time”, an expression apparently coined by 19th century tailors who didn’t earn much money when the gentry were on holiday, a period that coincided with the cucumber growing season. In Spain their silly season is called “Serpiente de Verano” or “Summer Snake”, apparently a droll dig at Nessie’s appearances in August.

It seems this annual festival of frivolous news both here and abroad is blamed on lawyers and politicians taking a long break, thus denying newspapers their usual streams of stories from courts and parliaments. But this summer it turns out that the number one silly season story is actually political. You’ve guessed it – I’m referring to the current dog-days dogfight for the leadership of the Tory party and keys to 10 Downing Street.

Right from the off the two candidates lost no time in being very silly. I mean, the picture of Liz Truss, who at the time of the 2016 EU referendum was a passionate Remainer, now being backed by the Nigel Farage tribute act on the Conservative Party’s extreme right wing is world-beating silly season material. In fact, we need to rename this the farcical season.

Then there’s the spectacle of Truss and her opponent Rishi Sunak both trying to sound more Thatcherite than the other without it occurring to either of them that in the Red Wall seats across the North – largely responsible for the Tories’ stonking majority at the 2019 general election – the name Margaret Thatcher is synonymous with the devil.

Silliest story of all, though, is the Bring Back Boris campaign, backed by 25,000 signatures and counting on the website. Some Tories even want Johnson’s name added to the leadership election ballot paper, which, if it happened, would be the political equivalent of Nessie surfacing in the River Thames right outside the Houses of Parliament.

Oh yes, this year’s silly season is set to go on… and on.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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