Mrs Maybe and the anti-popularity virus…

SOMETIMES politicians catch the anti-popularity virus and whatever they do just ends up being horribly wrong.

That fate seems to have befallen Theresa May. She is stricken with the bug and looks more desperately unwell with each passing day.

Prime ministers must cope with bad things happening on their watch – whether they share any blame for what has occurred or not. For a moment, put aside thoughts of governmental responsibility for the still unfolding Grenfell Tower tragedy; forget the acrid suspicion that austerity and the widespread enriching of the few at the expense of the many may somehow be behind what happened.

Instead just consider three public reactions to the inferno.

First up for evidence are visits to the site of the fire in North Kensington by two politicians. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meets people on the street, talks to them, puts his arm around their shoulders and acts like a normal human being rather than a politician. His presence seems to help because he stands there looking shattered and tearful.

Theresa May has a meeting with police and other officials, during which she stands around looking awkward. She does not meet any local people, which isn’t surprising as meeting local people seems to be anathema to her.

Her visit is rightly condemned by the hanging judges of social media, with photographs of her looking uncomfortable among officials set against Corbyn comforting a sobbing woman.

After a different but short visit to St Clement’s Church in the area, the prime minister dashes off, as she does, without a pause. According to some reports, one woman weeps – saying it is because May hasn’t spoken to anyone outside the meeting.

Jump forward to Newsnight on Friday and the prime minister’s interview with Emily Maitlis. This is another uncomfortable experience for Mrs Maybe. She sidesteps questions over renewed criticism of her response to the tragedy, and as usual sticks to the script like a robot with the stutters.

Pressed on the need for the public to hear that something had gone horribly wrong, Mrs Maybe says: “What I have done since this incident took place is, first of all, ensure that the public services had the support they need in order to be able to do the job they were doing in the immediate aftermath.”

Official words, oddly empty words.

The third visitor to the scene of this appalling tragedy is the Queen, who comes along and shows Mrs Maybe how it should be done. Anyone who has tarried on this ledge or read columns I have written in the past will know I am far from the biggest Royalist around. But you must admit that the Queen knows how to handle these sombre occasions, and seems far more willing to meet survivors than Mrs Maybe.

Of course, the Queen carries no responsibility – all she does is show up and convey an impression of being sorry for what happened, while hoping her presence helps in some way. Which it does.

She says that it is difficult to escape the “very sombre national mood” following tragedies in Manchester and London – which it is, and the Queen is right to say that.

We can only guess how much empathy flows through royal veins, but by any calculation, it’s a lot more than passes through the prime minister.

This is odd in many ways, as you would think that a vicar’s daughter might have grown up realising the value of connecting with people, of understanding their troubles and so forth. But I guess it was a long time ago, and perhaps the offspring of vicars are no more sympathetic than those parents were not clerics.

Coming so close after her disastrously fought election, Mrs May’s apparent lack of feeling, or her unwillingness to stray from the official script, her inability to meet ordinary people face-to-face, just makes her look inadequate.

I cannot believe that she doesn’t have feelings, and it is true that feelings can be tricky in politics – either because the politician seems to be taking advantage of a situation, or because they just appear insincere.

But whatever the problem is, Mrs Maybe shows no signs yet of shaking off that anti-popularity virus.

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