“Hello, dear. Pop yourself down next to me there, that’s lovely. No, there’s no point going to the door, I’ve locked it anyway. Now, why don’t you pull your chair a little closer so I can take a look at you? Oh that’s much better... No, no – I’m fine for tea, thank you, it’s the weekend, so I’ve got this half-pint of Gordon’s here next to me. Export strength! Philip’s gone to fetch more. Now, I wanted to have a little chat with you about Brexit…”
If you felt a strange, rumbling feeling underfoot in the British countryside last weekend – especially in the Buckinghamshire area – try not to be alarmed. It was merely the earth shattering a little as Theresa May attempted rebirth. Shortly after 3pm on Sunday, post-church and post-roast, the Prime Minister posted a Brexit statement on Twitter that marked a drastic change from her recent stilted, robotic lectern addresses from insider Number 10. This time she was sitting down.
She was sitting on a sofa, to be precise (though there hasn’t been so much effort put into that act of physical relaxation since, well, actually since the last time Theresa May went on The One Show) at Chequers, her country home. To the Prime Minister’s left was a glass of ‘water’; to her right a vase of tulips. And the presentation style was intended to be natural and convivial. There were laughs, pantomime facial expressions and a shaking camera that gave the impression we were Skyping a rich aunt whose spaniel keeps knocking into the iPad. It was different, eerily so. It was Theresa May 2.0.
But what was she trying to tell us?
I, too, like to sit down
On a slate grey sofa, May greets us in repose. How long has she been there? Is she invoking Jackanory, or Ronnie Corbett? Want does she want with us?
Nestled in the corner with the room’s only cushion behind her and an elbow cocked, we seem to be looking at her from the perspective of a therapist, or Alan Carr on the Chatty Man set. In reality, on the other side of the camera you’d probably find 42 twentysomething aides chewing their lanyards with nerves, the PM’s director of communications, Robbie Gibb, holding up a sign with “BE F***ING NATURAL” scrawled across it, and Philip May poised with a cough drop.
But what’s that next to her? Two spare seats. That’s one for Jeremy Corbyn, because, after all, “members of the public want to see their politicians working together more often”, and one left empty for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, which will return.
I, too, live for the weekend
You can tell it’s the weekend because she is wearing a jacket that’s exactly like the kind she wears on Monday to Friday, except this one is made from a combination of tweed and cable-knit – two materials that pass for athleisure in the home counties. The vibe is May’s equivalent to David Cameron wearing his all-navy polo shirt and jeans ensembles when he used to drag Samantha and half of Fleet St to Cornwall for every holiday he went on for six years, or Tony Blair tieless and strumming an electric guitar on the Number 10 sofa in the late 90s: clearly off-duty, but not so much that you rethink everything about them.
I, too, am sick of all this
“Over the past few days, people have been asking me what on earth has been happening with Brexit,” May began. “And I can understand that, because after all it’s been nearly three years since people voted in the referendum for the UK to leave the European Union.”
As she says the word “nearly”, she chuckles a little, setting the tone for a two-minute statement that would contain more audible laughs than we’ve seen in her entire political career. Later, after some fluffed lines, May’s couching of the earnest topic in overly friendly facial expressions and speech patterns become those of a Newsround presenter trying to explain a terrorist attack.
My home? Why, it’s just like yours!
Perhaps, like me, you also spent the first minute of the video rigid with disbelief that May is not the kind of person to keep the plastic covering on her sofa. But that’s exactly what they want us to think. Number 10 won’t be making the same mistake as the Queen and her golden piano, and she knows from experience (leather trousergate) that any photograph of a public servant’s living room is swiftly annotated to include the price of everything. So we have as little to talk about as possible: a bland sofa, bland curtains, a few cheap tulips, that glass of ‘water’, wood panels, a bit of priceless art… just like any 16th-century country retreat you or I might own, really. Imagine how long it took to arrange this room to look quite this dull. Those poor aides.
Anyway, back my deal and then back off
As May brings her homespun audition tape for the character “Normal woman #4” to a close, we are reminded that it’s all an act in the final seconds of the video. She’s sniggered heartily at the idea of compromise, endured more camera jerks than the Blair Witch Project and delivered her latest piece of ground-breaking analysis – “I think people voted to leave the EU.” At which stage her face hardens as the Maybot returns. “And that’s what the government’s working for.” The screen cuts to the coat of arms, but behind it, the gin, surely, has just been downed.