A coughing fit could happen to any of us, at any time. We have no control over irritating medical conditions, despite the over-the-counter ‘cures’ available from the pharmacy. And who wouldn’t be helpless to prevent the arrival of an uninvited visitor at an inappropriate moment? (Although we would have to be deeply unfortunate if that person then humiliated us in front of friends.)
Theresa May could not do much about all that went wrong during her pivotal speech at the Conservative Party conference yesterday. After all, she’s only human. A mere mortal, like the rest of us. Except she can’t be. The Prime Minister can never be one of us. From the moment she takes office, she is on duty 24 hours a day, every day. Her entire life is played out in public, and her guard cannot drop. She has to look and act like a Prime Minister at all times. In leadership, actions are defining, but presentation and image are also critical. Vulnerability is fatal.
Perhaps Mrs May was ill-advised to attempt her keynote speech yesterday when troubled by a sore throat. Calling off would have been a significant blow, but it would have been a blessed mercy compared to the slow-motion car crash which took place at Manchester Central.
She was most certainly let down by security, who allowed an imposter to stroll up to her and execute an audacious prank at her expense. It is not hard to imagine a similar approach being made with more sinister intent. The Prime Minister should expect, and deserves, protection at all times. Why did that not happen yesterday?
But just as she cannot be one of us, she is also judged by different standards. Yesterday would be a (very) bad day at the office for some of us, although what went wrong would hardly be considered sackable offences. However, for a Prime Minister who didn’t have her troubles to seek, it was an utter calamity, and will mark the moment in history that her premiership became untenable. Some will argue that such a moment arrived when Mrs May called an unnecessary election she then failed to win, but up until yesterday it remained possible she could hold on to power. Not now.
A strong hand at the helm is mandatory as the UK negotiates the uncharted waters of Brexit, and Mrs May’s authority has been holed below the waterline.
She was brave enough to open her speech with an apology to her party for the dire general election campaign which cost the Conservatives their parliamentary majority. She will need to be brave again, and face up to the fact that, whoever shoulders the blame for yesterday’s shambles, a Prime Minister cannot recover from the damage her image sustained. Her make-or-break speech was career defining after all. It can only be a matter of time before she is replaced.