Theresa May is not the first Prime Minister to seem uncomfortable in front of the media. During the election campaign and since she has been criticised for uninspiring interviews and speeches. But then Clement Attlee was not exactly Captain Charisma. Nor was Ted Heath. Jim Callaghan had a popular gruff manner – but his oratory didn’t exactly pulsate. Tony Blair and David Cameron are both masters of emotional literacy. Indeed perhaps they were too good at it, leaving the public suspicious. The difficulty is that the modern age increasingly demands of politicians to “show us that they care”.
Often Conservatives are more interested in practical solutions. We look at the figures, seek the evidence, watch out for unintended consequences of passing a new law. The Left are stronger when it comes to expressing moral indignation.
There can be little doubt that Theresa May – as with the vast majority of MPs of all parties – is thoroughly compassionate. As a vicar’s daughter, concern for others, especially the least fortunate, would have been instilled in her as core values from childhood. Her constituents in Maidenhead have found her thoroughly conscientious even since she became Prime Minister.
She gets absorbed in the details but her emotions only show when the camera is not moving. For instance with regard to the Hillsborough victims, Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, says:
“Steve Rotheram read the 96 names out and their ages. I remember looking across at her and seeing her eyes, affected by what she was hearing and the emotion in the House and I think maybe she understood it for the first time in a way she hadn’t understood it before,” Mr Burnham said. “You couldn’t be left unmoved by it and she was visibly moved by it.
“When it comes to Hillsborough and how we worked together, I can’t fault her really. Everything she said she would do, she did. She had a real regard for the families and their situation and that’s just the simple truth. She was always straight dealing and sympathetic and wonderful with the families. She had genuine commitment.”
The difficulty is that in this cynical age unless the public can see that aspect of a politician’s character they refuse to believe it exists. There is also exasperation at Ministers, or Shadow Ministers, refusing to answer questions for fear they might be caught out saying something not included in their briefing notes. May’s survival prospects in Downing Street would be enhanced by showing more self confidence in this respect.
For all this, amidst the anger from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the response is never going to be easy. Perhaps the Prime Minister did not want to visit the scene straight away on Wednesday morning as she didn’t want to distract the emergency services. As it is, the delay is presented as callous. Yesterday she met survivors privately. Some suggest that she was “cowardly” not to also talk to those demonstrating outside – some of whom appear to have been far left agitators rather than Grenfell Tower residents.
In a rush to pass judgment the protestors have been eager to wave placards simplistically blaming “Tory cuts” but as the Daily Mail says this morning:
“One thing is abundantly clear: budget cuts by the Tory council had nothing to do with it. Indeed, the tragic irony is that if Kensington and Chelsea had spent not a penny on refurbishment, the blaze could almost certainly have been contained.
“As it was, the authority spent £8.6million on ‘improvements’ – money that appears to have been spent with appalling incompetence, hugely increasing the risk of an inferno. The way residents’ warnings were ignored should haunt all concerned.
“For just £200,000, life-saving sprinklers could have been installed. Instead, priority seems to have been given to meeting EU targets for energy conservation, with the contractors using inferior exterior cladding of a type banned in other countries and insulation known to emit lethal cyanide.”
Both with this tragedy and the affairs of state more generally more openness is needed. Rather than hide from the media, Ministers need to go out and state their case. Too often these encounters come across as an ordeal to be got through saying as little as possible rather than an opportunity to get across a message and enhance understanding. If Ministers don’t know the answer to a question they should admit it. If there are difficulties about a course of action being demanded they should say what the difficulties are. Perhaps this will mean more “gaffes” which then need to be “clarified” – better that it be so than this exasperating endless obfuscation.
Being straight with people is the best way to assuage their anger. Treating them like children will exacerbate it.