It's my party and I'll cry if I want to...

Politicians used to show that they cared by kissing babies. Now they tell us what makes them tearful. Andy McSmith on the politics of crying

There was a time when it would have been career destroying for a politician to admit to shedding a tear. Margaret Thatcher would never have risked her prized reputation as the Iron Lady with such an admission of weakness – though she was spotted, twice, shedding tears: when her son Mark got lost in the Sahara desert and when her career came to an end.

Her reticence is understandable, considering the ridicule directed at Bob Maclennan, who took on the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in 1987 after it was reduced to a rump and was negotiating a painful merger with the Liberals. Maclennan became so frustrated dealing with David Owen, who refused to be a party to the merger, that one particularly ghastly meeting reduced him to tears. From thereon, he was known as Blubbering Bob.

But a quarter century later, Ed Balls, Labour's tough Shadow Chancellor, has volunteered a list of occasions when he was lachrymose, unafraid that his enemies might call him "Blubbering Balls", because instead of being a cause of shame, it now is almost obligatory to have a tear in the eye. In the public's view, the politician who cannot cry is not in touch with his or her feelings, and therefore cannot be expected to be in touch with ours.They cry over so many things that a cynic might wonder if they do it on purpose.

It was probably all started by Australia's Bob Hawke, who turned on the waterworks during a television interview in 1989, when he admitted cheating on his wife of 33 years. It worked – the next year, he scored his fourth consecutive election victory – but his long- suffering wife eventually divorced him.

He was perhaps the inspiration for Bill Clinton, the first President to share his tears with the American nation, notably in 1998, on the day that independent counsel Kenneth Starr published allegations against the President, including his affair with Monica Lewinsky. "It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine," Clinton said.

Public opinion in the Western democracies has become more and more sceptical about whether anything their elected leaders say or do is genuine, so the politicians have to try all the harder to convince them. And there is nothing more genuine than tears. Or is there?

Tracks of their tears: Who cries to what

David Cameron

In 2010, the Prime Minister told TotalPolitics the last time he cried was watching The Sound of Music. He did not reveal if he saw the musical alongside Ed Balls, who also admits weeping at this one.

Nick Clegg

The Deputy PM told Jemima Khan in a New Statesman interview this year he "regularly cries to music". He did not specify which music but his Desert Island Disc choices included Schubert and Radiohead.

Tony Blair

The former PM was dry-eyed when he walked out of No 10 but admitted in his autobiography to being moved by the victims of the Iraq war (if not regretful about its origins). "Tears... do not encompass it," he wrote.

Ed Balls

Westminster's biggest bruiser and the Shadow Chancellor told Total Politics he wells up during Sunday teatime showings of the "incredibly emotional" Antiques Roadshow, as well as The Sound of Music.

Tessa Jowell

"Beautiful music", Anna Karenina and the novel One Day are reliable tear-triggers for the former Labour minister, who says she was moved, "when a friend's daughter sang at a 16th birthday party recently".

Rory Stewart

The swashbuckling Tory, who crossed Afghanistan with a dog for company (it died in 2002) admits "any film, book play or poem in which a dog dies", including the dog in The Dam Busters, makes him weepy.

Stanley Johnson

The former Tory MEP and father of Boris is unfailingly moved by men in shorts. "I know it sounds rather Corinthian," he says, "but however many times I see Chariots of Fire, tears course down my cheeks."

Louise Mensch

The novelist-turned-Conservative MP, praised for her tough questioning during the hacking hearings, says she can be "reduced to heart-wrenching sobs" by death-bed scenes, particularly those in Downton Abbey.

Tom Watson

When he isn't reducing press barons to tears the Labour MP and hacking crusader says Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply reduces him to "a blubbing mess every time I see it". How many times, Tom? "Twenty."

Yvette Cooper

The Shadow Home Secretary and Labour's chief blubber admits to crying on more occasions than she can count. "I even cried watching a Cinderella panto at Christmas," she told The Guardian.

David Burnside

The Northern Irish politician identifies with Balls, admitting to crying in front of Antiques Roadshow. The Diary of Anne Frank will do it. "But mostly, great speeches move me," he says. "Oh, and Balls makes me want to cry."

Lord Archer

Did prison life reduce the Tory peer to tears? No, but adverts for washing up liquid will. "There is one where a mother washes up with her little girl. I always wanted a daughter – I burst into tears when I see it."

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