Acutely observed political caricatures are more than just a means to make us laugh; they are a weapon. The most powerful – John Major in his underpants, for example – are capable of puncturing egos, of cutting powerful figures right down to size.
Once a particular “take” on a leader has insinuated itself into the national psyche, no amount of clever spin-doctoring can shift it. Indeed any attempt to present an alternative version is counterproductive. It reeks of desperation – of a career on a downward trajectory – and is liable to reinforce rather than rebut whatever tics or flaws the satirist has spotted and magnified.
The tale of the Maybot is a classic example. When writer John Crace picked up on Theresa May’s jerky head movements, mechanical responses and inability to emote, and cast her as an unfeeling automaton, it struck an immediate chord.
The appeal of the analogy lies in the fact it seems to fit almost every occasion; whether May is answering questions on Plymouth with a series of non sequiturs or struggling to identify with the plight of the Grenfell Tower victims, there is a sense that her hard drive has been faultily wired; that she is failing to compute.
So firmly has the robot image embedded itself, that almost every news story about her is framed in those terms; thus her special advisers become her “operators”, a policy U-turn becomes a “reboot”, and every time she falters in an interview, it’s down to “a silicon chip inside her head getting switched to overload”.
The result is that, a year after taking office, the Prime Minister can stage as many relaunches as she wants; she can admit to shedding a single tear or crying herself a river; but the public will continue to perceive her as simulating human emotion and the headline on the New Statesman front cover will continue to read: “The Maybot malfunctions.”
May’s spin doctors are thus in a bit of a pickle; having spent the first six months of her premiership presenting her as a ruthless operator, a deliverer of a hard Brexit and a “crusher of saboteurs”, they now have to unpick not only their own work, but the work of journalists so taken with the paranoid android shtick, they have abandoned their Cruella de Vil campaign.
Even set against this backdrop, however, last week’s orchestrated rebrand – with its emphasis on a softer, more caring May – was a masterclass in how to totally screw things up. In terms of its cringeworthiness, it was right up there with the “fields of wheat” admission – an earlier, equally misguided attempt to change the narrative.
Let’s start with her interview with Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett in which she ’fessed up to experiencing something akin to sorrow on the night of the general election she chose to call.
I must admit, I am not a fan of the X-Factor-style obsession with politicians weeping. Having stayed dry-eyed during many a harrowing interview (and occasionally cried at a schmaltzy John Lewis ad) I am unconvinced that tears are a reliable indication of depth of feeling.
Although Winston Churchill apparently blubbed at the drop of a hat, I suspect undue lachrymosity could be an impediment to good judgment and capacity to deliver. I would rather politicians express their respect for victims through constructive action than ostentatious and attention-seeking displays of grief.
However, if – after persistently failing to grieve for victims of a major tragedy – they do succumb to public pressure on the crying front, it’s probably best not to say that what finally moved them was their own personal misfortune. Particularly if they are the architects of their own downfall and they’re taking the country with them.
For most of her premiership May has – as Dorothy Parker said of Katharine Hepburn – run the gamut of emotions from A to B. Yet it wasn’t the queues of hungry people at food banks, the trail of migrants making their weary way across Europe or the fear that Brexit might tip the country into an economic abyss that finally broke her; it was the prospect of losing her majority. So traumatised was she by the exit polls, she fell sobbing into her husband Philip’s arms. Or whatever. Whether it’s true or a cynical attempt to manipulate the public, it’s not a good look.
Just as mind-boggling was her speech endorsing Matthew Taylor’s report on the “gig economy”. Though it has already been criticised as “feeble”, the emphasis on legislation to beef up protection for workers without holiday or sick pay, was presumably aimed at softening her image.
If so, then it was an epic fail; not because she couldn’t guarantee her weakened government would be able to follow through on the recommendations, or even because leaving the EU will further erode employment rights, but because it allowed critics to point out her vested interest. With her jacket on the shoogliest of pegs, of course she’s railing against “job insecurity”.
The Barnett interview – a few days later – allowed the same point to be made again, more forcefully. The fact she didn’t foresee any of this just reinforces the perception of a low EQ. May has no insight into other people; no understanding of what makes them tick or how they are likely to react.
In the meantime, of course, the Prime Minister is pressing ahead with the Great Repeal Bill, which was published last week. Its so-called Henry VIII clauses – which would allow the government to scrap or amend legislation without recourse to parliament – led some newspapers to briefly drop the automaton analogy in favour of pictures in which the Tudor King’s head had been superimposed on her body.
Still, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg, the Maybot will be back. It’s too uncanny and compelling an image to disappear now; and May is too far gone to mount an effective counter-offensive.
Indeed, last week Crace wrote a column in which he imagined the challenge installing and uploading “an empathy function” into her “operating system” prior to the Barnett interview had posed.
Good caricatures are career-defining; the best are career-destroying. Long after Brexit has – or has not – been enacted, and May is quietly tending her garden, the image of a clunky bionic woman, prone to glitches and bewildered by human sensibilities, will prevail.