Guilty secrets, eh? We’ve all got them. There are thoughts we can’t help thinking, feelings we can’t help feeling. It would be easier if we didn’t, if everything about us lined up neatly with the person we like to think we are. But no: life is complicated and we are complicated and IfeelabitsorryforTheresaMay and there, I’ve just said it, and I tried to say it really quickly but you heard me anyway, and I’m a bit embarrassed about it and you probably are too if you know me, but I now feel that I need to explain myself, so here goes.
This really isn’t about her politics. I don’t feel sorry for her because of those. Her politics, from her voting record to her role at the heart of a heartless government to those appalling vans, are pretty abhorrent to me and I don’t intend to defend them at all. But so much of the sludgy opprobrium that’s been chucked all over her by everyone from every possible angle in the past couple of months isn’t really about her politics. A lot of it is about her deep-set and by now unchangeable personality traits and her appearance and other things that aren’t entirely her fault or are beyond her immediate control. And that for some reason is enough for me to want make T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase Theresa May: It’s Not All Her Fault. OK then, one T-shirt. For me to wear. Under a particularly thick jumper. In the dark.
You see, many of us are more like May than is fashionable or sexually attractive to admit. Many of us, like her, are a bit shy, really, and sort of forced sometimes by circumstances to try to compensate for that, with results that are usually rubbish and just come across as strained, clumsy and insincere. Many of us, like her, are entirely unspectacular human beings, and a bit reserved, maybe a bit nervy, preferring to have small numbers of very close friends rather than large numbers of, well, close friends. Many of us are hilariously unphotogenic. And if anyone mocked us or any of our friends for any of this stuff, I’m pretty sure we’d feel bad about it and I think we’d see it as at least a bit unfair.
Theresa May avoids Grenfell Tower questions on Newsnight
It so happens that, of all the moments May could have been prime minister, this is about the worst imaginable for someone like her. She may well think she’s in the right place but she’s there at the wrong time. This is an age that demands of its leaders brio, tactility and colour. This is a world where Facebook expects at all times from us an array of showy emotional responses to even the most trivial matters. May stands in this time and place as a throwback to a distant era. Like the Queen after Diana’s death, the aftermath of the Grenfell fire has seen her, with some justification, being expected to be someone she’s not: someone who shows emotional vulnerability when the cameras are on her. She obviously dealt with the situation appallingly in public but, by at least one account, she has shown herself perfectly capable of expressing heartfelt compassion in private.
When in front of the camera, she is comfortable only when reading from a script; otherwise, she looks startled and alarmed. So would many of us be, even if we had nothing to be startled or alarmed about. In previous decades, her apparent inability to be in any way naughty would have been seen as a virtue; now it’s just seems dull and a bit weird. (What did we expect? “Well, as it happens I once went on a coke-fuelled bender in Barnstaple with Shaun Ryder and a chimpanzee”?) And for a woman known for her robotic utterances, she actually has what might be called an “expressive” face, which in candid circumstances is often caught in a variety of unflattering, endlessly meme-able states.
Prime minister Theresa May was just not made for 2017. She is simply in the wrong job. In large part, that’s because of her political failings. But it’s also because someone with her particular characteristics and foibles will always struggle to meet today’s expectations. Even if her politics were different, the person would be the same, so let’s make sure we criticise her for the right reasons, of which there are many. Otherwise, you never know, I might just have to make a few more of those T-shirts.