The prime minister stumbles from blunder to faux pas, wearing the same haunted look. No wonder: she is completely unsuited to the role of world leader.
There is one truly amazing thing about Theresa May that makes me think I could live to be 100 and never be half the woman she is: she keeps getting out of bed, every morning. Another day goes by, horribly; she spends the morning dancing as if she is performing a public safety video on why humans should never dance; the same afternoon, she pays a ceremonial visit to Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell and is called on to explain what, exactly, she did to campaign for his release in the 80s. Did she even boycott any fruit? She did not. Was she a member of the Conservative party? She was. Did she agree with its leader, Margaret Thatcher, that Mandela was a terrorist?
She gurns; there is panic in her eyes. “The important thing to remember,” she starts, using her trademark technique of answering a specificity with a generality – but the important thing looks set to elude her. All the generalities have vanished. Was it that everyone thought everyone was a terrorist in those days? Was it that she was too busy with wheat fields and whatnot to be thinking about apartheid?
It is worse than painful – and it is immortalised on film for people to watch and rewatch. Someone will probably recut it for a video, to the tune of Man’s Not Hot. An hour later, she was posing in the cell of the man whose release she did so little to secure. It is shaming, but the next day’s caption in the Daily Telegraph is worse: “May walks in Mandela’s footsteps”. Like having no moral compass and taking a day trip is a little bit like spending 27 years in prison for a principle.
And yet, come the morning, there she is. Not just up, but dressed. She probably didn’t even need an alarm clock. Anyone else would need a cattle prod or a bed full of maggots.
Before May’s ascent to high office, I thought imperviousness was the defining trait of a world leader. They all get it from a different place: David Cameron saw his power as such an inevitability, such a sure sign that all was right with the world, that it almost didn’t matter what came out of his mouth; he could just drone repetitive phrases, like those a printer makes when it is plugged in. Donald Trump is fuelled by monstrous bile, so that mishap and humiliation only make him stronger. Angela Merkel has the look of a teacher whose class is being a bit silly. Emmanuel Macron has the ease of a man in an advert for a polo neck of such fine cashmere that it is fit for a president.
This unifying Teflon is a neutral quality in politics and nothing to be proud of, but I cannot think of any other country in the world whose leader is so palpably, visibly awkward. The sight of her curtseying to royalty, holding hands with Trump, always with that haunted look, laced with confusion, like a person on a runaway horse who isn’t completely sure they are not dreaming: it doesn’t arouse empathy, so much as a horrified feeling of contagion. Why am I embarrassed? I didn’t do the stupid curtsey!
One day – quite soon, I imagine – this ghastly period of May’s life, in which she is constantly asked questions to which there are no decent answers and her best shot at statesmanship is “it won’t be the end of the world”, will be over. It would be asinine to pretend there has been much to be proud of. But let us never forget how much getting out of bed she did.
Cover photo: Look away now … Theresa May dances with pupils at a South African school on Tuesday. Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images