Abi Wilkinson: Where exactly does Theresa May think she is leading us to?
The PM knows that winning support is often less about what she says and more about how she says it - and too many lobby journalists are guilty of playing along.
A couple of days ago, Theresa May delivered a one-liner that went down well with political journalists and pundits. In response to Corbyn’s support for the anti-Trump demonstrations that took place across the country on Monday evening, she sneered: “he can lead a protest, I’m leading a country”.
Her intention was to present the Labour leader’s position as unserious. To cast his involvement with street protest as ineffectual, student-unionesque posturing, at odds with the sensible, grown-up business of governance. According to this logic, unshakable moral convictions are the preserve of the dogmatic and naive. Politics is about choosing between a range of imperfect alternatives, and sometimes the only sensible option is to grit your teeth and hold hands with lecherous, Wotsit-hued bigots – especially when there’s a trade deal to be secured.
Cultivating a sensible, sombre and faintly schoolmarmish public image is a tactic that has previously served May well. Public confidence in her competence might be decreasing (just 20% of people think she is handling Brexit negotiations well, significantly down from the early days of her leadership when she was widely lauded as a “safe pair of hands”) but she remains relatively popular amongst voters. A lot of appeal seems to lie in her ability to conform expectations of how a professional politician should look and behave.
In our day-to-day lives, humans are bombarded with so much information that we regularly resort to “perceptual shorthand” to make sense of the world. This includes drawing on social stereotypes to form immediate judgements about people based on their appearance and demeanour. It’s why David Cameron’s jibe that Jeremy Corbyn should “put on a proper suit” and “do up [his] tie” actually had some truth to it, as petty as it seemed. It’s also why media promotion of racist and sexist stereotypes is so damaging.
Like many politicians, May knows how to use this psychological process to her advantage. She’s aware that winning support is often less about what she says and more about how she says it: meaningless soundbites like her call for “red, white and blue Brexit” can still be potent if they push the right emotional buttons.
This tactic is greatly rewarded by a genre of journalism, particularly prevalent in the UK, which treats politics as something akin to a spectator sport. Commentators and even reporters observe Parliamentary debates as they might a tennis match, awarding points for witty lines and adept deflection before declaring that one MP or another “won” a particular conversation. Though only a small percentage of the population bothers to actually watch Prime Minister’s Questions, this style of coverage ensures that party leaders’ handling of the ritualistic weekly exchanges has an outsize impact on public perception.
The lobby’s fetishisation of style has always been somewhat at the expense of serious policy analysis, but in recent months the disconnect has become particularly stark. The decisions Theresa May takes regarding Brexit will be far-reaching and irreversible. Though the choices made by a Prime Minister are always important, we’re at a historically critical juncture. It seems perverse to comment on politics as if it’s a game, praising the woman who holds our country’s future in her hands for artfully dodging questions — feeding us banalities and jokes instead of proper explanation.
The same is true when it comes to May’s relationship with Donald Trump. The world currently seems to be changing very rapidly. Power is shifting and international norms are being challenged. The way in which our country positions itself — the alliances it forms, the policies it chooses to condone and, indeed, the policies it enacts — matter enormously. Flippantly dismissing the concerns of millions of UK citizens about Trump’s treatment of Muslim immigrants, his support for torture and his attitude towards sexual violence is not the act of a genuinely serious politician.
Voters deserve far greater respect than May has seen fit to show us. If she feels justified in prioritising the “special relationship” over condemning Trump’s most worrying actions, as Angela Merkel and other world leaders have done, she should be willing to properly defend that decision. Yes, she might be leading the country while Corbyn is leading a protest, but the question is: leading us where?
Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images