Is Theresa May’s stiff upper lip a strength or a weakness?

World

Is Theresa May’s stiff upper lip a strength or a weakness?

As the British PM fights for her career over Brexit, we take a look at what keeps her going despite everything

Judith Woods


Was it only last month that UK Prime Minister Theresa May awkwardly, magnificently, sashayed on to her Conservative Party conference stage to the strains of Abba? Ministers who stood and applauded her then are pressing forward to dance on her political grave now.
And yet she remains unbowed, the still centre of an extraordinary storm, appearing on live radio, smiling (if not quite to her eyes), patiently explaining over and over why her Brexit deal is the best deal and reassuring us that she is the person to deliver it.
In truth, her deal is the only deal on offer and despite the carping and criticism, front-bench resignations and back-bench self-righteousness, no one else in her party – possibly the UK – wants to contemplate the career suicide of trying to bring home Brexit.
Outside the Westminster bubble, the electorate sees a beleaguered leader, exhausted yet keeping her head while all about are losing theirs. Michael Gove pledged his support but not enough to take up the poisoned chalice of the Brexit secretary job. Presumably everybody else put their phones on “silent”, which is why Stephen Barclay (nope, never heard of him either) ended up being cajoled or perhaps pranked into the job.
Who could fail to sympathise with May at the most human level? Although I’m not sure pity is a healthy emotion in this instance, given that she’s the head of the government, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her woes, however self-inflicted.
I suspect that’s why she bypassed her party and chose to speak straight to the nation via a lengthy phone-in. I interviewed her two years ago and was struck by her brisk determination to get the job done and focus on politics rather than personalities. She spoke only reluctantly about her private life, including her diabetes.
“My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking,” she told me. “I’ve always championed women in politics. We just get stuck in; politics isn’t a game. The decisions we make affect people’s lives ... something we must all keep to the forefront of our minds.”
That dogged determination and overarching sense of duty is both May’s greatest strength and most fundamental weakness. Why? Because sometimes tenacity can calcify into stubbornness and single-mindedness slide into myopia.
Yet even her most vocal detractors could not accuse her of self-interest; in an age where the public perceive the majority of politicians as on the make, driven by ego or avarice, this principled vicar’s daughter stands alone. But standing alone has its drawbacks.
Crucially, at a time when she urgently needs to persuade her own rancorous colleagues to back her, May is at a disadvantage. On LBC at the weekend she made a telling observation about a hero, the legendary cricketer Geoffrey Boycott: “[He] kept there at the crease, he carried on and he relentlessly went for his goal – and I think that’s important.”
A laudable quality, but Boycott played in a team. Without the others on side, he would have achieved nothing. Similarly, while conviction politicians are to be admired, “relentless” politicians not so much. And just because May has proven she can keep ploughing on regardless doesn’t mean she should.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited

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