Theresa May spent the weekend in Scotland and not even the civilised bit. The Prime Minister was posted to the wilds of Aberdeenshire, which are handsome and underpopulated but not exactly a commuter hub. Journalists grumbled about the remoteness of the location, well aware that inaccessibility was the point. May has not been campaigning in this election so much as touring the nation’s emptiest rooms, occasionally bringing along another borough councillor who will be elected to Parliament in five weeks’ time.
The punters have been kept far away from the Prime Minister for reasons of security — political security. Party strategists have long memories. They remember the name Sharon Storer. Storer was the woman who confronted Tony Blair outside a Birmingham hospital during the 2001 election and harangued him about her partner’s treatment at the hands of the NHS. Blair tried his best to defuse the situation but when an angry housewife meets a politician, there can be only one winner. Gesticulating at the Prime Minister as the TV cameras rolled, Storer spat: ‘All you do is walk around and make yourself known but you don’t do anything to help anybody.’ In a matter of minutes, she landed more blows on Blair than the Tories did in that entire election campaign.
The Tories want to avoid similar incidents. May is an untested, unelected Prime Minister; it might not take much to swing public opinion against her. Their caution is understandable but misplaced. Voters actually quite like May, not just politically but personally. They think she’s a safe pair of hands and after six years of the shiny-faced PR man, they are in the mood for a no-nonsense headmistress figure.
The commentariat has been baffled by May from the start. Complaints about her electioneering style is the latest phase in their long strop against a country they no longer understand. May lacks sparkle. Instead, she is grey and serious. But the country wants grey and serious. She doesn’t have the wit of Blair or the insight of Brown. Again, though, the country isn’t in the market for those qualities. The Prime Minister is taking the same attitude to the election campaign as voters take towards the Brexit negotiations: it’s a bloody awful business, let’s get it over with.
If you’re a hack, you want the Prime Minister out there, in the open, where a passing Sharon Storer can have a go at her. If you’re Jeremy Corbyn, you think elections are fought and won in town halls and public meetings. If you’re Nicola Sturgeon, used to mega rallies and branded sweatshirts, the pull of public adulation is too great to resist. But the voters don’t care much for politics and sense in May someone who feels the same. That’s not to say she’s an in-it-for-the-folks populist — far from it — or that she’s above political skulduggery. You don’t get to stay Home Secretary for as long as she did without a certain strategic savviness. Whether or not this is the authentic Theresa May, she gives the impression of someone for whom politics is not everything. This is why she is able to connect with the voters. Understand that and you begin to unravel the mystery that is Theresa May and Brexit Britain.