Theresa May has given several reasons as to why she decided to call a snap General Election, though none seem to chime with the reasons suggested by most pundits and the public. Dashing between the twin political chinwags of Marr and Peston on Sunday morning, the PM provided viewers with a master-class in how not to answer a question, with each reply sounding like a pre-prepared statement that bore little relation to what she’d been asked. Her evasive approach to questioning is one of the main gripes viewers have with MPs when they’re put on the spot and it could explain why she’s so reluctant to participate in leaders’ debates on TV. It certainly wouldn’t do her any favours.
In a way, it’s a wonder this particular skill has never actually been turned into a quiz along the lines of the ‘Yes-No Interlude’ that formed part of early ITV game show ‘Take Your Pick’. Each contestant could be an MP and Paxman could be the host posing the questions; give a straight answer and you’re eliminated. It would certainly provide the BBC Parliament channel with a novel diversion into Saturday evening light entertainment.
Perhaps a cynic could surmise the PM’s reliance on tactics that perpetuate the popular consensus that politicians can’t answer a straight question because they have something to hide is due to a certain ongoing criminal investigation. Before the General Election date of June 8, the CPS will decide whether or not to prosecute over 30 individuals associated with the Conservative Party (including an estimated 20 MPs) over alleged breaking of spending limits during the 2015 Election. Although this issue has yet to be labelled ‘Battle Bus-Gate’ (thankfully), it has the potential to cause severe embarrassment to the Tories, particularly if some of the MPs engaged in re-election campaigns are charged before their constituents have even visited the polling station.
It’s doubtful, however, that even this serious abuse of electoral expenses, nor the Prime Minister’s tired technique for deflecting awkward questions, could damage the prospects of Theresa May returning to No.10. Opinion polls carried out since she called the Election suggest a majority of voters, particularly middle-class women, regard her as a far safer pair of hands than Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, unlike a Presidential Election, the electorate don’t vote for party leaders unless they happen to be their local MP; but it’s inevitable that the party leaders and the amount of media coverage they receive as national spokespeople for their parties has an impact on the way the nation votes.
On the eve of the 1979 General Election, James Callaghan was reportedly more favourably regarded by voters than Margaret Thatcher; having cultivated a ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ persona, Uncle Jim didn’t provoke the passions his opponent did (and continues to); Thatcher as a personality was almost viewed as a wild card, though her policies and her party were trusted more than Callaghan’s, especially with his inability to control over-powerful unions and the infiltration of the Labour Party by the extreme left. In the end, it seemed policies won over personalities, though Thatcher did appeal to what used to be called ‘the housewife’ with her pseudo-Mary Whitehouse image, something that came across well to a specific demographic.
In the here and now, Theresa May has undoubtedly taken tips from the successful selling of her sole female predecessor in Downing Street; she has the same matronly demeanour and is clearly aiming this at those to whom it appeals. The fact that she is 60 and the Leader of the Opposition is 67 would also appear to be a significant factor. As with the US, the generation born in the 60s that assumed power at the turn of the decade seems to have been usurped as widespread dissatisfaction with their reigns has resulted in a return to an earlier generation whose age and experience of life contrasts with the professional politician class in their 40s. In 1979, Callaghan was the same age Jezza is now; Thatcher was 53, though by today’s standards looked older.
It’s easy to say that image or personality in politics shouldn’t matter, but it’s indisputable they do. So far, Corbyn to me seems more relaxed than he has done at any time since becoming Labour leader and appears to be enjoying the campaign; as with Nick Clegg in 2010, it’s possible to speculate he has the luxury of doing so because he’s not troubled by the prospect of power (though in the case of the ex-Lib Dem leader, rash promises came back to bite him). The PM, on the other hand, isn’t exuding the same cavalier confidence, even when all of her public appearances on the campaign trail to date have been before party activists who would enthusiastically greet a goat as long as it was party leader.
Odd little things count when it comes to personality politics. Bald men don’t do very well when aiming to be PM. Neil Kinnock and William Hague lost General Elections whereas John Smith and Iain Duncan Smith never got the opportunity to fight one – albeit for very different reasons. Corbyn’s beard could induce mistrust in some; there hasn’t been a Prime Minister with facial hair since Harold MacMillan, and one has to go all the way back to the Marquess of Salisbury (who left office in 1900) to find a PM with more than a mere moustache. Granted, Corbyn’s beard can’t compete with Salisbury’s hipster whiskers, but for the more paranoid its presence on Jezza’s chin is a throwback to the ‘Loony Left’ era of the 80s, when all Labour firebrands appeared to have misplaced their razors.
As with the sadly unsuccessful challenge of Bernie Sanders in the States, first-time voters and those in their twenties favour Jezza, probably excited by his past ‘radicalism’, though the fact remains this section of the electorate are both lax when it comes to voting and are outnumbered by the over-40s, who are more likely to vote Tory. Even if every Corbyn supporting youngster got off their arses and dragged themselves to the polling station, they’d still be in the minority. Headmistress or beardy-weirdy, when it comes to image, the irony is it might not make a difference after all.
© The Editor