One of the most awkward moments in my journalistic career – aside from my first ever interview with a politician resulting in an elderly Labour peer weeping beside me in a steak restaurant – happened last year.
It was October. I was sitting in the front row of the raised seating in an auditorium in Manchester. The beleaguered Prime Minister, who that year had lost her majority and her party’s respect in a general election she triggered, had taken the stage to reassert her authority. It was a big moment for her.
And then she was croaking. And spluttering. And coughing. She had to take a lozenge. She spilt water down herself. She tried to continue speaking, but the coughing fits kept coming. Political observers and sadists who watched the whole thing will remember the protester who interrupted her speech by handing her a “P45” – and the backdrop slogan’s letters falling off too.
I felt sorry for her. I couldn’t help it. Sitting comfortably in my row of cringing journalists, hoping I’d never in my life have to go through such embarrassment, I just felt a flood of sympathy. I was sweating. My muscles were clenching. I couldn’t shake the feeling for quite a while.
Lots of people seemed to feel the same way. Bungling public speaking is a classic anxiety dream. It’s relatable. And it’s horrible to watch someone suffer.
Of course, it was also a journalistic gift – a perfect symbol of her political fall-from-grace. Something I welcomed both as a reporter and a member of the British public who has seen (and, in the cases of people close to me, experienced) the damage successive Conservative governments have done to the country. I’d much rather see a change of government. I much prefer Labour’s policies.
But the point was, it could be two things. I could feel empathy in that cavernous hall, watching a solitary woman losing her dignity and what was left of her reputation, living a real-life nightmare. And I could also feel pleased that a Prime Minister who has concocted and perpetuated such ruinous policies – both in her time as Home Secretary and now – was coming unstuck.
This week, as Theresa May faces opposition from her cabinet, MPs and Parliament to her Brexit deal, people are again expressing sympathy.
Political satirist Kaya Mar says he “feels sorry” for Theresa May and that the UK is heading towards “a slow suicide” pic.twitter.com/IwSC6MWTZ1
— Alex Marshall (@alexmmarshall6) November 15, 2018
One is starting to feel some sympathy for PM May. She has brought probably the best possible deal when her country has put itself in the worst possible situation. Many simply refuse to recognize this reality.
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) November 15, 2018
I actually feel sorry for #TheresaMay she’s produced a unicorn & now everyones bitching at her because it’s not the unicorn they wanted. Trouble is everyone wanted the unicorn in their head
— Marilyn Monrogue (@Dunsterjones) November 15, 2018
I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Theresa May…or is it just me https://t.co/OAZ7f2GDcM
— Claire Rafferty (@clrafferty1) November 15, 2018
Honestly can’t help but feel sorry for Theresa May. How can one person be expected to negotiate with 27 others and come out with a good deal? We should never have been in this position in the first place #BrexitChaos #BrexitAgreement
— georgiaellen (@georgiaellen7) November 15, 2018
I’m a remainer, don’t get me wrong, but does anyone else feel sorry for Theresa May? She didn’t even want Brexit; and now, she is being criticised for trying to make the best out of the shitty situation given to her by 52% of the UK and a bunch of bombastic Brexiteers.
— Sophie Tice (@Sophie_Tice) November 16, 2018
I feel sorry for Theresa May.
Watching this press conference I just want to give her a hug.
— United Britain #FBPE (@UnitedBritainUK) November 15, 2018
I’m probably going to be lambasted for this, but I kinda feel sorry for @theresa_may #Brexit is an impossible task as there was never any agreement as to what it actually was/is. Anyone as PM would be in the same hole.
— crazy horse (@frontal_bow) November 16, 2018
But this is a controversial view. The actor Michaela Coel’s tweets – expressing empathy and admiration for the Prime Minister who has “been landed with D Cameron’s mess, like a dad abandoning his adolescent son. In a room largely full of self-seeking individualists” – have received a strong reaction online, a lot of it negative.
Listen… I did not vote for Theresa May,
But that chick is handling her shit right now in house of commons like a QUEEEEN
She’s been landed with D Cameron’s mess, like a dad abandoning his adolescent son . In a room largely full of self-seeking individualists, she doin good
— Michaela Coel (@MichaelaCoel) November 15, 2018
I’m sure there’ll be a lot of classic arguments and outrage and whataboutme’s below . But I’m just here to pay compliments to a woman that is really stepped into a ring I don’t know much about and is trying her best. So this is compliment street. Go elsewhere for bickering
— Michaela Coel (@MichaelaCoel) November 15, 2018
It is easy to see why people would balk at any apparently positive feelings towards May. Her Home Office policies and beyond have made life in Britain insufferable for many immigrants and asylum seekers. The hostile environment has created a country with record levels of hate crime against people from ethnic minorities. Her misjudged snap election and insistence on capitulating to extreme right-wingers in her party have largely created this Brexit mess. Her continuance of austerity (despite pretending it’s over) is dismantling the state, pushing people into poverty and ruining lives.
The majority of my career has been pointing out problems with Conservative government policies, reporting on their impact, and fact-checking, challenging and mocking ministers and MPs who carry them out and support them.
I understand where people come from when they say “don’t feel sorry for her – feel sorry for those on the receiving end of her policies”. Of course, anyone with a heart feels far sorrier for those who are not being served – and are actively being punished – by this government. And far angrier on their behalf.
But sympathy doesn’t run out. It’s not zero-sum. And it doesn’t feel genuine to say we can never feel sorry for May. It may not be left-wing. It may not be politically consistent. But it is kind of human. I felt an instinctive pang in that hall, and I get why people see the position she’s in now and feel a bit “poor thing”.
I also understand that there is a privilege in feeling sorry for people who do politically-damaging things. It isn’t usually political commentators who shoulder the burden of bad decisions, after all. But I would also like those Tories who parrot positive macro stats about, say, the record employment rate to listen to the stories of real people impacted by their politics – and feel sympathy with the individual. I find it odd when they don’t.
As my colleague Stephen Bush often points out, it’s not a good position for a Prime Minister to be evoking the nation’s sympathy anyway. No one wants a leader they feel sorry for. So it’s probably politically purer than you think to have a little sympathy sometimes.