As Theresa May struggled with a cough during her speech at the Conservative Party conference, with letters falling from the ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ signage behind her and a has-been telly prankster handing her a novelty P45, a prevailing sympathy seemed to descend from all sides of the political spectrum.
“You could not have been in that room yesterday and not feel sorry for her having to go through that physical ordeal, you’d need to have had a heart of stone,” BBC politics editor Laura Kuenssberg told Radio 4’s Today programme, though Kuenssberg had earlier acknowledged herself that “no leader…wants the sympathy vote”.
But it’s not just Kuenssberg, who has previously been accused by those on the left of softballing or pandering to the establishment, or even just those who had previously been neutral towards the Conservative Party and its leader. Others more traditionally critical of May have also gone soft, such as Sarah Ditum - who has vocally criticised May’s deal with the DUP but wrote this week about feeling “so sorry” for the PM. Or musician and former Morning Star columnist Chris T-T, consistent in his criticism of the government but prompted to express similar sympathies in the light of the latest mishap.
However, while it may be human nature to empathise with the situation, we should be concerned by the lengths to which some people have gone to project a level of humanity onto the Prime Minister.
Yes, stumbling over your words can be humiliating. So can a cough striking during a moment where you’re trying to emphasise your strength and credentials as a leader. So can nervously taking such a big sip of water that you can’t swallow it all at once and nearly spluttering it all back out all over your notes in panic, in front of a room of people, and news crews, and global social media.
What’s the worst that can come of this, though? Perhaps May will be replaced as leader of the Conservative Party and see her status as Prime Minister disappear after little more than a year. Perhaps she could even eventually lose her seat in Parliament at the next General Election in 2022, though this seems unlikely after she won nearly two-thirds of the popular vote in her constituency of Maidenhead in June. In short: her professional ambition to remain in the most powerful position in the country might be thwarted and her legacy consigned to a Have I Got News For You punchline.
The argument about being able to sympathise despite ‘disagreeing with’ May’s politics is to minimise her decisions and their real-life impact on others.
This is someone who, after all, has consistently voted against provisions for some of the more vulnerable people in the country, be it in the form of opposing welfare increases in line with prices, cutting universal credit benefits for many people in paid work or other aspects of her voting record. Inserting her humanity as a de facto leveller ignores the fact that her political decisions have denied the same to others.
Has she afforded that same sympathy to the detainees at Yarl’s Wood, the immigration detention centre which was described as “a place of national concern” by the prisons watchdog and which attracted allegations of ‘state-sanctioned abuse of women’ during May’s time as Home Secretary? Has she felt sorry for the gay refugees sent back to countries where they’ll be prosecuted?
We have also recently seen plenty of semantic gymnastics surrounding the actual abuse of MPs, and the attempts to justify it on the basis of perceived incompetence. The idea that Diane Abbott’s public speaking stumbles can be met with ridicule while May’s see some of the same people jump straight to sympathy is wilfully inconsistent at best.
Anyone with common sense knows that an unfortunate cough doesn’t make Theresa May any worse at her job, or that the ability to suppress one would make her any better. We cannot conflate someone’s political responsibilities with their humanity. And the reaction to her speech has (unintentionally, admittedly) taken the focus away from criticism of her policy at the very moment it was being announced.
The rush to turn the discussion to a matter of public image is perhaps unsurprising, considering the increasingly presidential qualities by which we seek to judge our leaders. Surveys in the lead-up to the most recent election pointed to a disparity between support for parties’ policies and for those parties themselves, while some support for and positivity around Jeremy Corbyn since the election has followed his ability to appear ‘prime ministerial.’
Being able to display a façade of authority has some value, sure, especially within one’s own party. However, focusing on this more loudly than on policy matters presents a slippery slope towards excusing or ignoring abhorrent policies on the grounds that the rhetoric around them is delivered smoothly and authoritatively enough.
In an ideal world, no one would be compelled to feel sorry for a Prime Minister fluffing their lines, and the farce of Theresa May’s speech wouldn’t really matter at all. We might feel for her or enjoy the schadenfreude at a personal level, but we cannot let our individual sympathies for a politician cloud our judgment of the system they represent.