That Theresa May’s Tory conference speech was something akin to an anxiety dream has now been fully established – almost every single daily paper ran with the PM’s shambolic delivery on its front page. It was one cock-up after another, from the coughing to the comedian to the collapsing set, building to a farcical crescendo that one almost suspected had been beamed directly from the brain of Armando Iannucci. I actually had to walk out of the room several times, so unbearable was the full body cringe of watching the PM falling apart in real time. Indeed, those of us with leftwing political views couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of schadenfreude at seeing the Tories brutally exposed as anything but “strong and stable”. But at the same time, many of us, perhaps in ways that came as a surprise even to ourselves, felt sorry for her. It’s a bit like when the nastiest girl at school, the one who is mean and a bully and makes all the other pupils cry, strolls out of the loos with a sanitary towel stuck to her shoe. You don’t start hating her any less but you also think, oh shit, poor her. You know?
There was something very human about the way the prime minister coughed and spluttered her way through the address. Most of us have felt nervous about public speaking, just as most of us have attempted to do carry on doing our jobs while nursing a stinking cold. So on an empathic level, you can imagine how it may have felt to have been standing up there, desperately trying to hold it together as the image you were attempting to project – that of a competent, professional woman in control – slides away from you with the world watching.
Don’t get me wrong: I loathe what the Tories have been doing to this country. I have a disabled brother and the impact of their austerity policies on the people like him mean that I could never countenance voting for them. The disaster that is Brexit is another sticking point, and, as a feminist, the treatment of women in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre left me horrified. When, in her speech, May claimed that the Conservatives cannot let Labour have the “monopoly on compassion” I audibly snorted. But that doesn’t mean that, as a woman, I don’t also feel sorry for May – and from the looks of social media, it seems that lots of other people, particularly women, feel the same.
May’s shambolic speech will be taken as a sign that she – and by extension, other women, because that is always how it is – is not fit to be leader
Gender is definitely a factor here. For the last few weeks we have watched as male Tory politicians have consistently undermined May’s authority as she struggles to keep control of her party, with Boris Johnson pointedly invoking macho language about roaring lions. Politics aside, many of us know the feeling of being undermined this way at work by male colleagues, and so will empathise. Furthermore, the kind of language that is used about her by her male colleagues present and former – whether it’s Owen Smith’s infamous vow to “smash May back on her heels” or George Osborne’s recent alleged remark that he “wants her chopped up in bags in my freezer” – serves to remind her and us that she is, ultimately, a woman. And a woman’s place in politics remains, sadly, tenuous.
May’s shambolic speech will be taken as a sign that she – and by extension, other women, because that is always how it is – is not fit to be leader. In the male-dominated environment that is politics, this matters. When one woman is weak, it means that we are all weak, and that is why seeing one of us humiliated while the world watches is always going to feel uncomfortable. So often we are expected to be made of stone at work, to be “more male” in our ways of dealing with people. It’s implied that we lack the authority to lead. Business publications run articles listing our body language missteps. The way we dress, speak and act is under a microscope. Compare coverage of May’s speech with that of Tony Blair’s speech in 2000, which he delivered wearing a shirt soaked with sweat. It proves he is a real man," said one spinner, while another added: "It showed that when the heat is on he gets going."
Well the heat is on now, and I have no doubt that many sexist Tories wish that May would get back to the kitchen. The irony of all this is that May is just the kind of woman who would claim that she got where she is all by herself, and that gender has nothing to do with it, so other women are perfectly capable of the same without the need for special assistance or pleading. This makes our sympathy for her all the more bittersweet. Women work so hard to be treated as equals in the workplace, to be taken seriously, to exude authority when speaking in front of our male colleagues. This latest reminder that even at the top the challenges remain the same naturally cause hearts to sink. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean she should get a free pass to perpetuate the injustices she has. She’s the leader of the nasty party, after all.