Arabella Byrne

How do politicians switch off?

How do politicians switch off?
Image: Getty
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'Like a sea beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure. I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it […] And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue – out of charity and out of chivalry.' 

So said Churchill in 1915 after the disaster that was Gallipoli. Salvaged by the Muse, Churchill found solace from the pressures of political life in art. Last week, another sea beast emerged from the depths, consoled this time not by a Muse (he does, however, like to paint) but by the Sirens of the sea. To watch Boris Johnson plunge into the waters of Carbis Bay before a tense day with Monsieur Macron at the G7 is to gaze through the small aperture of a politician’s private life, offered up to the public briefly and tantalizingly before it snaps shut and the mask of office is restored.


But just how do politicians relax? Looking at the summer holiday snaps of various leaders it is clear that some have mastered the art better than others. Take Tony Blair for example, whose lavish holidays on board his friends’ yachts on the Med in his crumpled linens gave one the distinct feeling that he had left the cares of his Sedgefield constituency far behind him. Not so Gordon Brown who looked like he would far rather be back in Downing St than sitting on a deckchair in Southwold, however much his advisors may have wanted him to grin, or give something, anything away for the camera. 

Times were of course far simpler when aristocratic Prime Ministers could disappear to their grouse moors in August and everyone knew where they stood. Harold Macmillan allowed himself to be photographed in the sixties squinting up at the sky gun in hand, although were a Prime Minister to do this now he would be called to execution by the Twitterati. In more recent times, PMs have played it safe, sticking to the British Isles and engaging in outdoor pursuits: Ted Heath sailing and Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May walking, a pursuit that cannily requires neither bikini nor water-skis.

Margaret Thatcher at home (Getty)

Journey over the Pond and you see how the Americans have got it rather more sewn up, their sporting scene providing a liminal space for Presidents to be notionally off duty whilst publicly on view. Obama was frequently pictured on the basketball court during his time in office, sitting courtside with a Chicago Bulls cap on laughing and joking. A maestro at making you believe the President was actually able to put his phone down for even a second and enjoy himself. Biden, King of Schmaltz, is also able to pull off the relaxed demeanour. Watch him cheer on the Phillies and you are lulled into the one of the narratives that propelled him to victory: Joe the family man who coached Little League in Delaware before buying everyone an ice cream at the diner. Of course, Trump being Trump, he may have taken the whole thing a step too far and picked the wrong sport. Pictured playing golf at Mar-A-Lago more often than the public would have liked, sport became a conduit through which he was not the President but simply a plutocrat in a golf buggy.

Whether they like it or not, Prime Ministers and Presidents need to hint at a life beyond the lectern for the balance between power and persuasion to be held in check. Voters, used to being issued diktats about their lives from on high, require a certain amount of cajoling that politicians vaguely resemble themselves, or are at the very least reminded of life outside the political bubble from time to time. Images of politicians swimming, watching sport, playing sport, painting or even singing karaoke (David Cameron, step forward to the mic) go some way to making us believe in their humanity. But politicians are strange. They are not like us or they wouldn’t be where they are. Maybe we need to acknowledge – if we haven’t already - that their public offerings of relaxation are spin at worst and charade at best. Maybe they don’t want to relax. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn’t. The appetite for watching the powerful at leisure will continue, particularly in the age of the lens that we live in, but our expectations may change. Churchill may have convinced us that painting was how he relaxed but I’m sure there were plenty of other (less elevated) ways too, that involved a bottle and a cigar. Show me a picture of Boris having a glass of wine and a packet of Kettle Chips on the sofa after a long day and I’d be far more convinced.