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How do you separate outrage about Theresa May from misogyny? Quite easily, it turns out

She's not bloody difficult. She's just bloody useless. 

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister, I was overcome by a familiar sense of dread, the same one I get whenever a woman with odious politics achieves a position of dominance.

“She’s going to be awful,” I thought, “But she’ll also be held to far higher standards than any man. Will it always be possible to separate justified outrage from misogyny? Or will this be another situation in which left-wing women are expected to take one for the team?”

I remembered this, vaguely, from the end stage of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. This sense that while, yes, I could see her years in office had wrought devastation, there was something about the unbridled glee at her removal, the particular delight in kicking a woman when she was down, that felt, well, extremely gendered (and yet to say so, given the context of her actions, would have felt terribly petty).

“How,” I wondered, “Can we ever fully distinguish criticism of a woman’s politics from horror at her deviation from the prescribed feminine role?” And yet it turns out I needn’t have worried. Ten months after May’s ascent to 10 Downing Street, a mere two weeks before the general election she swore she’d never call, I can say this with certainty: I’ve never seen a criticism of May’s cruelty and ineptitude that I haven’t thought was utterly bang on.

She really is bloody useless. Or rather, were she in the kind of job that everyday “hardworking people” are wont to do, she’d be classed as bloody useless. Neither you nor I could turn up for a meeting and demand that a project be signed off, funding secured, without any revelation of plans as that would mean “putting our cards on the table”. Neither you nor I could talk in endless circles, promising to make a success of something we’ve already insisted is a success, but then again might not be a success, unless we determine to make a success of it. Neither you nor I could, with a straight (let alone artfully sneering) face, dismiss as “hysterical” the very campaign we’d been a part of 10 months earlier. You wouldn’t get away with it as a man, and as a woman you wouldn’t even dare try.

Yet politics is different. Time was when you had to display at least some semblance of competence and sincerity. They might have been wrong as hell, but you got the sense that on some level, even the likes of David Cameron meant it. Nowadays you don’t even have to bother, providing you can be cruel. Unbridled cruelty is the only quality required. That hardness alone stands in for everything else. “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind” has been turned on its head. Cruelty has become an end in itself, kindness a mirage, a pretext, a privilege we can’t afford. It doesn’t matter if the messages are inconsistent, as long as there’s common theme that involves playing off “people who need help and support” against “taxpayers” (God forbid that most human beings are both of these things. I guess we’re meant to think Tories are self-gestating, self-weaning, never-ageing biological miracles).

And the interaction of this with gender politics is fascinating to see. Like Thatcher, May weaponises femininity and uses sexism to her advantage when she can. Yet also, in playing the battleaxe, the “bloody difficult woman”, she does something more than restate her perceived exceptionality. If kindness is weakness and kindness is feminine, then the cruel, right-wing woman outplays the soft, left-wing man. The nastier she is, the more she forces Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into the role of the woman whose every flaw is scrutinised. She’s Thatcher minus the blood, minus the politics, minus the belief in anything. Only the cruelty and lust for power remains. While beleagured 1980s Labour leader Michael Foot might have faced a similar sort of ridicule to Corbyn, at least Foot had ideologies at which to take aim. Corbyn has nothing but shadows.

When Hillary Clinton lost the US election to a man so vastly, visibly inferior to her in terms of experience, intellect and all-round capability, it was a devastating blow for women. Forget the idea that for a woman to compete with a man, she needs to do everything he can only “backwards and in high heels”. Unless she can actually be a man, she might as well give up. At least unless, it appears, she doesn’t even try to compete. Unless she empties herself of all compassion, all thought, and becomes a simulation of power so raw, so devoid of purpose, it doesn’t even have to be male.

It’s not true that if a woman works hard, she can access the same opportunities as a man. Hillary Clinton proved that. Yet Theresa May manages to combine profound incompetence with mind-blowing destructiveness and she’s on the verge of winning a general election.

This, surely, should provide hope to incompetent, cruel women everywhere. You can do it, too. Your sex doesn’t matter, just as long as you tear out your heart.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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