Shifty, uncomfortable and out of her depth: when Theresa May’s mask slipped


If Theresa May is faking competence, perhaps they all are. What a terrifying thought.

Source: The Guardian

Whatever we might think of Theresa May’s policy, ideology and vision of Britain, we’re told we should at least be grateful that she is competent. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, her sensible, schoolmarm-esque demeanour contrasted sharply with the childish bickering and backstabbing of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, and the adolescent recklessness of David Cameron and George Osborne.

When she won the Conservative leadership contest by default – her strategy being to simply remain quiet while the other participants took turns to self-immolate – the nation breathed a sigh of relief. She’s not exactly what many of us would have hoped for, but at least the delicate, thorny task of Brexit negotiations would be tackled by one of the few genuine adults in the room.

But what if, in the midst of the post-referendum fallout and general Labour party chaos, we’ve bestowed an image of mature, calm capability on someone who simply doesn’t deserve it. Watching May at prime minister’s questions, it was hard to escape the feeling we’ve been a little hasty.

Diplomatically, the performance could be described as “disappointing”. She avoided pretty much every question she was asked, instead reaching for a series of weak, pre-written putdowns. “Even on rolling stock, Labour are a laughing stock!” she recited awkwardly, prompting forced chuckling from the government benches that sounded even more unconvincing than usual. It’s possible that a stronger script and slicker delivery might have made her chosen strategy a success. As things were, though, she seemed shifty, uncomfortable and out of her depth on important policy issues such as Brexit and housing.

In a particularly bizarre moment, she answered a serious question from Corbyn about housebuilding by quoting a sarcastic response the Labour leader had received on Twitter: “Lewis writes: ‘Does [May] know in a recent poll on who would make a better prime minister, ‘don’t know’ scored higher than Jeremy Corbyn?” she reeled off in her characteristically stilted style. For a politician with a reputation for being sober and no-nonsense, the move seemed jarringly trivial and childish.

Things went from bad to worse once the individual she’d quoted was identified. As it turns out, Lewis Collins – who uses the handle @swingaleg – has a fairly colourful Twitter history. A few days ago, he responded to a news story about a racist attack by opining: “Every time a Polish person is lamped, it will always be considered a Brexit hate crime. Even if they asked for it.” Another time, he messaged the author Elizabeth Day to say “piss off you stupid, feminist piece of shit”.

I thought the name seemed familiar, and it turns out I too have had the odd runin with Lewis In one particularly delightful interaction he informed me I was “mentally deficient”. The account has now been deleted from Twitter, presumably in an attempt to minimise the backlash, but it seems likely the examples I’ve quoted weren’t isolated incidents.

All of which begs the question: why didn’t May bother checking just who she was quoting? Given the political attention that has been devoted to social media trolling in recent months, it seems a fairly stunning oversight. Corbyn has been blamed for abusive tweets sent by people claiming to back him, despite issuing social media guidelines urging supporters to interact politely. In a rhetorical pincer move, the very fact he found it necessary to issue such guidelines has been presented as evidence of his responsibility.

Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if he’d read out a troll’s tweet in parliament. At best, it would have been seen as evidence of extreme incompetence. In all likelihood, many people would have said that he was actively encouraging online abuse. Why, then, should things be any different for May?

Though it could be argued that the incident is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, it’s not like her reputation for capability is founded on anything deeper than surface presentation. Post-referendum, we seem to have developed a sort of collective amnesia about May’s career history. At the time, her tenure as home secretary was widely regarded as an utter disaster. Her attempts to tackle immigration were both dystopian and cruel and hopelessly ineffectual according to her own criteria. She missed every target she ever set herself. When you think about it, it’s hard to understand how she’s come to be seen as something of a political saviour.

Charitably, you could suggest that her failures, past and present, illustrate how difficult being a frontbench politician actually is. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes; and most of us don’t have the fate of an entire country in our hands. Maybe the elusive quality of consistent political competence is actually a myth, and the goal is simply to project the appearance of having your shit together.

If Theresa May is faking it, perhaps they all are. What a genuinely terrifying thought.


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