How to use lots of words and say absolutely nothing, by Theresa May

Theresa May is a new prime minister facing a weak opposition. She could have sat in absolute silence, staring at Ridge with one raised eyebrow for 20 minutes, and still kept a double-digit opinion-poll lead

John Rentoul
Sunday 08 January 2017 16:45
Theresa May avoids directly answering four questions in a row on Brexit

When people say politicians must think we’re stupid the way they never answer the question, Theresa May obviously thought what they wanted was someone to avoid answering questions in new and ingenious ways.

Her “snub the BBC” interview with Sophy Ridge of Sky News was a commanding performance. She was prime ministerial, she was poised, and she had several new ways of not answering questions.

She was asked how she felt, “as a woman”, about Donald Trump’s comments about women. The Prime Minister’s face was set, immobile. But the tiniest flicker in the eyes was detectable. If this had been an episode of Sherlock, her thoughts would have tickered across the bottom of the screen, in very small type: “As a woman? Are you having a laugh? You want me, having climbed through the broken glass of the ceiling, to get my hanky out and start talking about my feelings?”

So she said that what Trump had said was “unacceptable” and that he had said so himself and apologised. Which is almost right. He said: “I said it, I was wrong and I apologise.” And then she answered a different question, about the impersonal relationship between two countries and two governments, rather than two human beings. Probably because she knows how unpredictable Trump is, and that if she says anything personal about him she is liable to be contradicted by him on Twitter long before she gets to meet him face to face next month.

Far from talking about her feelings, she went for the highest level of abstraction and geopolitics, trying to tie the incoming Trump administration to Nato, saying: “From the conversations I’ve had, America remains fully committed to Nato.”

She found a new way of not answering the question of whether the UK would be a member of the EU single market after Brexit. This is an unusual question, in that everyone knows what the answer is. (Clue: it’s not yes.) But it is part of the game of politics that the Prime Minister doesn’t want to answer it. Something about keeping her options open in the negotiations.

So Ridge asked it and May said she didn’t want to focus on means, she wanted to focus on outcomes. Which is quite a clever way of not answering. The Prime Minister wants people to compare the EU trading deal she will negotiate with our single-market membership now. Which is smart, because there isn’t a genuine single market yet in many of the things that are most important to the British economy, particularly financial services. Therefore, it is possible that a Brexit deal in insurance, for example, could be better, or at least no worse, than what we have now.

She offered another symbolic gesture to Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party, saying that she doesn’t want to keep “bits of EU membership” because we are leaving the EU. (I say “another” gesture because giving this interview to Sky rather than to the BBC was calculated to delight her right-wing base.) This is curious, coming from someone who probably intends to keep up all manner of EU co-operation, on crime, the environment and everything else. It is semantics, because she can say that the UK is voluntarily opting into things, not because they are “bits of EU membership”, but because it agrees with them. She is the Queen of Gestures.

Some of her ways of not answering questions, though, were old-fashioned and familiar. She responded to Ridge asking about her failure to get net immigration down as Home Secretary by simply pretending the question hadn’t been asked. But she delivered her non-answer with style.

That is good enough for now. She may have avoided many of the questions, and answered others with platitudes and warm words about the importance of reducing the stigma of mental illness. But she is a new prime minister facing a weak opposition. She could have said nothing at all for 20 minutes and still kept a double-digit opinion-poll lead.

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