Ross Clark

Theresa May’s problem is that she is far too British for her own good

Theresa May's problem is that she is far too British for her own good
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While I was rummaging through data on what Treasury officials had spent on their credit cards, back in George Osborne’s day, I came across a series of curious payments. The Treasury had been paying RADA for coaching sessions. Ministers – I presume it was them rather than civil servants – were being trained by actors. Maybe they should have done the same at the Home Office, because the failure of the then Home Secretary to perform in public could very rapidly turn out to be her undoing.  

Her failure to express empathy during the election campaign was already being dragged up in election post-mortems.  But what has happened since the Grenfell Tower fire on Wednesday has compounded the problem a thousandfold. When she spoke to emergency workers she was criticised for not hugging survivors, like Jeremy Corbyn did. When she visited survivors in hospital and then in a church, she was slammed for not coming out and meeting people on the streets (though the footage of her car being mobbed on the way out demonstrates exactly why perhaps it wasn’t thought safe for her do this). When she submitted herself for interview on Newsnight she found Emily Maitlis interested in only one line of questioning: whether she had misjudged the public mood in failing to share her grief with the people.

If she still hasn’t got the message, it is this:  you are expected, Mrs May, to go and blub before the cameras. You are expected to hug, to hold and say that you share everyone’s pain, that you will not rest until you can make sure that tragedies like this will never, ever be allowed to happen again. That you might have been working behind the scenes since Wednesday on an appropriate regulatory response to follow the disaster counts for nothing at all; it is just tears, please.

The idea that Theresa May is some kind of heartless creature who has not been affected by the Grenfell disaster is absurd. I have never met her, but it is quite clear from the look in her face that she is she is as shocked by the whole thing as we all are, one or two psychopaths aside. It is just that she has a very English facet of character which, until a couple of generations ago, was seen as an asset: she has an aversion to showing emotion in public.  

As a public figure in modern Britain, however, this will no longer do. What used to be called a stiff upper lip is now seen as fault, if not a disability which requires treatment. The new rules of emotional correctness demand not just that you care but that you can cry with the people.  

It is simply no longer possible to be a successful Prime Minister unless you can do this. Tony Blair had this skill in spades – until late in his premiership when he grew grim-faced and silent when challenged on the Iraq War.  David Cameron was pretty good, too. Gordon Brown didn’t have it and neither does Theresa May. No British PM, though, can match Bill Clinton. I wouldn’t trust him in government an inch, but how he dug his way out of the Monica Lewinsky crisis through his blubbing mea culpa is breath-taking.   And so, too, would have been his response to the fire had he been British PM this week.

Thinking back to the election, Theresa May didn’t do badly because she failed to live up to her mantra of ‘strong and stable’.  The problem is the mantra itself: it suggested a lack of emotion, a resistance to going weak at the knees and shedding tears when required.  In a few years the personification of the English character has gone from Lord Kitchener to Lily Allen. Mrs May is just too much of the former and not enough of the latter.