Theresa May’s appearance on the One Show was awkward, halting, and unrevealing. It was a million sofas away from Tony Blair’s smooth and easy chat show turns. It was in truth rather dull.
It was a resounding success.
May, accompanied by husband Philip, fielded questions about when she knew she wanted to be Prime Minister, how they met at university, and who does what around the house (Theresa does the cooking, Philip does the bins). The First Lord of the Treasury shared her wedding photos and talked about being the daughter of a vicar who grew up in a vicarage and how vicarages were nice — they’re where vicars’ daughters grow up, you know.
Policy never intruded — the was the One Show, not Newsnight — but the whole performance was relentlessly political. This was Theresa May’s Team in its purest form, Mr and Mrs Strong and Stable. Theresa — who loves shoes — brought every question round to the need for a leader who could negotiate Brexit while Philip — ties and blazers — prefaced every answer with what a privilege it was to be in Number 10. Even the PM’s childhood was on-message: ‘It was stable, very stable’.
The funny, ‘humanising’ story was about that time Theresa’s selection in Maidenhead had been threatened by a rumour planted in the local paper. She was pregnant. Only she wasn’t. Ah, but then there was Philip’s mum. She read the paper and thought Theresa might be expecting. But she wasn’t. So that was that.
The exchanges had the air of a supermarket encounter with acquaintances that you worked hard to prevent becoming friends. You can’t ignore them and you don’t want to appear rude by rushing off, so you go through ten unbearable minutes of trading trite reports on children’s ages and marriages and your upcoming holidays before concluding with a month’s mind of who’s died since last time. The Prime Minister is an artist of such small talk, a skilled purveyor of blandishment.
All in all, it was probably the toughest interview she is going to acquiesce to in this campaign. Her advisers no doubt intended it to show her softer side, not realising that it’s the only side we’ve seen of the Tory leader since she came to office. May is all pastel colours and middling bromides. In the early days of her leadership and premiership, the Left and the Tory wets ridiculed Mrs Thatcher as a narrow, bourgeois housewife, humdrum and not even ashamed of it. Of course, while Maggie was devoted to Denis and all but reified family life, she was first and foremost an ideological crusader. She did the lighter TV shows too, but only to feign some interests outside politics. Theresa May seems to be the opposite: We know her hobbies and interests but she’s yet to reveal what, if any, are her political beliefs.
That is frustrating to those for whom politics is the be all and end all. We have become used to politicians who belong to what Alice Miles, writing in the Spectator in 1997, called the ‘politocracy’ — the clued-up, tapped-in, ex-Spad class who came to Westminster straight from Oxford and only risk encounters with the public on an occasional train journey back to their constituency. May, who didn’t become an MP until she was 40, is an outsider who has pierced the bubble. She raises the unnerving prospect of a new way of doing things, one in which the prejudices and preferences of ordinary voters trump, as they did in the EU referendum, the settled assumptions of the political elite.
The One Show is a litmus test for whether you belong to the politocracy or the punterocracy. After the show, my Facebook timeline — leftish, millennial, on permanent ironic detachment — was memeing itself into a collective sneer at this ghastly woman and her quotidian ways. Some friends were convinced May’s ‘gender gaffe’ would cost her dearly in the elections; they were referring to her division of household chores into ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’. You can see why Labour is in for a drubbing on June 8.
In time the public will weary of Theresa May’s elusiveness and come to wonder what she stands for. For now, and after a year of tumult, they are reassured by her dullness, comforted by the clunky commonplaces and the humour that is only funny in the broadest of senses. May is the Mrs Brown’s Boys prime minister — a premier who satisfies the masses but whose popularity baffles the intellectuals.