Would the wounded PM be allowed to carry on now if she were a man?
It’s not a comfortable question. As with many uncomfortable questions, however, it is worth asking. Theresa May’s party conference speech last Wednesday was looked to by supporters both in the hall at Manchester and across the country as a morale-boosting, galvanising rallying cry. It wasn’t to be. Most people would have heard afterwards about the unhappy event rather than watching it live. Some of us, though, were there in real time and would share the view of Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun, that it was probably the longest 66 minutes of our lives. First there was the hilarious and politically impartial clown Simon Brodkin (aka Lee Nelson) who will doubtless soon have much more work piling in from the BBC, then there was The Cough, and finally there was the forlorn disintegration of the set behind her.
It was The Cough that made it excruciating. You’d need a heart of stone not to have felt for her. Conservatives were willing her to get through it and even non-supporters must have experienced more than a pang of sympathy for a completely relatable human (minor?) ordeal. Most of us have been there. It’s often at the tail end of a cold, when you’re over the worst, but the throat is still a bit ticklish, a bit weak, a bit dry, needing a bit of clearing from time to time. If you’re going to get one of those moments, you also know it is going to happen when you least want it to, in a situation where you are either speaking in full flow, perhaps to someone on the phone, to one or two people face to face, or even to a small audience. Or it will happen when you are very much not speaking and when you and everybody else is silent, and the silence is deeper than anything the universe has ever known. That’s when you start to wonder if you have a lozenge anywhere. A Locket in a pocket. Or anyone else’s pocket for that matter. Because you’re desperate. You’re already halfway through the fifteen-second warning. Most times you can flee and have two minutes out for a doubled-up, mascara-flushing meltdown. Should you be wearing mascara.
On some nightmare occasions, however, you are just stuck. Years ago I was in the front row of a small, packed London theatre when The Cough ensnared me. Bill Nighy was inches away in the most dramatically charged, silent part of the play and I was convulsed, doubled up in the seat before him, in my own terrible and possibly mortal showdown with The Cough. It was like doing battle with Grendel’s Mother. I was barely able to breathe, but determined to keep The Cough in, to contain it, disarm it, determined not to disgrace myself by ruining the play that nobody had expected to be able to get tickets for. By the time I looked up the play was over and the auditorium empty. That’s how long it seemed.
It won’t have been as long as it was for Theresa May though. Nightmare. Complete nightmare. Should she have held up her hand, spluttered `Back in a moment’ as she dashed off stage to get down a good gulp of water and really recover? It’s hard to feel that this wouldn’t have looked as bad as what actually took place. It would certainly have brought more alarm to the already alarmed faces of government ministers. It was a tough one. To be fair to her, if she showed anything, it was certainly a kind of toughness, a dogged resilience with something that she couldn’t help. Many of us know that definitely took some doing to carry on.
The thing is, though, if a man had been in that situation, where his much-heralded leader’s speech had been undermined by a persistent and almost debilitating cough, and a female Cabinet minister had had to pop up on stage to proffer a couple of Tunes, would he still be in place now? The Prime Minister’s last few days have been difficult ones, in spite of reassurances to all of us from those keen to close ranks and support her. There was talk of a coup, there was talk of men in grey suits paying her a visit to say this could not be allowed to continue, there were Grant Shapps and Ed Vaizey. For now, for better or worse, the PM remains in place. It’s tricky, though, to quell the suspicion that the protectiveness we have seen towards Theresa May might not have been there for a male leader. A man trying to lead his party through turbulent waters but not being able to make his message properly heard because of a persistent cough and creaky voice would probably not have survived. He would have been despatched. He would have had to go. We need to ponder how we feel about female leaders not being treated with parallel ‘ruthlessness’. Is it progress? Is it really good for women? Or is it just patronising and means that all that has happened is that we have double standards? All equalities are equal but some equalities are more equal than others.
Is that kind of a cough anyway more of a Woman Thing than a man's? Who knows? That kind of territory is getting unexplorable.