Theresa May’s signs of humanity are unlikely to help her
London Letter: The prime minister remains powerless despite an impressive interview
Theresa May marked the first anniversary of her premiership on Thursday with an interview reflecting on how it had all gone wrong and revealing that she had “shed a tear” when she saw the exit poll after last month’s general election. She told BBC5 Live’s Emma Barnett that she felt devastated by the news that she was set to lose her majority in parliament.
“It took a few minutes for it to sort of sink in, what that was telling me. My husband gave me a hug, and then I got on the phone to the Conservative party to find out what had happened.
“I felt, I suppose, devastated really. I knew the campaign wasn’t going perfectly, but still the messages I was getting from people I was speaking to, but also the comments we were getting back from a lot of people that were being passed on to me, were that we were going to get a better result than we did.”
Hillary Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn famously told her that being human is overrated
When her husband hugged her, she shed “a little tear” before collecting herself and deciding that she should carry on as prime minister.
Politicians usually win praise when they cry, which is perceived as evidence of being human.
Hillary Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn famously told her that being human is overrated, and tears are overstated as evidence of it. In politicians, it is almost always a response to not getting what they want, as it was in May’s case last month and in Clinton’s in 2008, when she was losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.
In a coffee shop in New Hampshire, the prospect of losing became too much for her and her eyes welled up and her voice cracked.
“I have so many opportunities from this country and I just don’t want to see us fall backwards as a nation. This is very personal for me,” she said.
Hemut Kohl’s crying
The world lost one of its most lachrymose statesmen last month in Helmut Kohl, who often moved himself to tears with his own speeches. It usually happened when he was recalling Germany’s emergence from the rubble of the second World War and suddenly his huge jowls would start to tremble and the tears would spurt out horizontally, as if from a pair of water pistols.
The tears worked for Kohl every time and they may have helped Clinton to win the New Hampshire primary and keep her campaign alive for a few months longer. May’s reported weeping is unlikely to help her, although the interview was one of her best, and she came across as candid, modest and fairly authentic.
She explained her decision to carry on as prime minister rather than walking away, as David Cameron did after the referendum, in terms of taking responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
“I called the election, I led the campaign and I take responsibility for what happened. But there’s also a responsibility for the future, for the country, and that was about ensuring the country had a government,” she said.
Most Conservative MPs say they want May to remain in Downing Street until the Brexit negotiations are completed. This is partly because they cannot agree on a successor and many conversations on the subject start with “we have to stop” David Davis or Boris Johnson, or someone else.
One minister this week dismissed speculation about the leadership as the fruits of too much warm Prosecco on the terrace at Westminster and nightly summer drinks parties are undoubtedly a breeding ground for mischief.
One Conservative MP I met this week, who was fired up with plenty of warm gin, said he hoped May would survive for as long as possible although he had little respect for her. But he acknowledged that, even if nobody challenges her leadership in the coming months, events could derail it.
There is another agent which could drive May out of Downing Street – herself
Thursday may have been the first anniversary of May entering Downing Street but Friday is a month to the day since fire destroyed Grenfell Tower, killing dozens of people. The prime minister’s flat-footed response to that tragedy was not the result of any want of compassion but evidence that she is not quick enough on her feet for today’s political environment.
If her party keeps her in place and events do not derail her, there is another agent which could drive her out of Downing Street – herself. When parliament goes into recess next week and the prime minister and her husband go off on a walking holiday in the Swiss Alps, she will have time to consider her predicament. Trapped in a powerless premiership, depending on her own MPs and the DUP for survival and with no realistic prospect of a reversal of her personal fortunes, she might conclude that she has fulfilled her duty and decide to pack it in. Now that would be human.