There’s a very famous book by the literary critic Professor Sir Christopher Ricks called Keats and Embarrassment which, embarrassingly but inevitably for a one-time student of English Literature, I’ve never read. One reason was that I was too busy drawing cartoons for two-bit student rags, one of which showed Keats having just coughed tubercular blood over his neat, joined-up copy of ‘Ode to A Nightingale’ and saying “Oh Christ! That’s embarrassing!” Professor Ricks, I was later informed, was not amused.
Still, he helped point out an aspect of human life and interaction to which we rarely account due importance, not least in the realm of politics. For sure, we’re all aware of how embarrassing politics can be, personally and nationally, in terms of policy, presentation and implementation. However, what I suspect we don’t choose to acknowledge (because to do so is itself embarrassing) is the power of embarrassment as an aggressive weapon.
Ironically enough Theresa May was hitherto a brilliant exponent of this lethal gambit, even if the tables have now turned and her prime ministership shows every sign of becoming the most embarrassing in history.
Although it’s hard to feel even remotely sorry for her, there is a vague whiff of The Tragic lingering around the Prime Minister. Apart from all the standard universal personal tragedies that have beset her like everyone else, her political life has hitherto been one of enviable and almost unbelievable ease: after the usual initiation in an unwinnable constituency, she was handed one of the safest Tory seats in the country in order to become one of those incredibly rare beasts, a Conservative MP elected for the first time in 1997. She was rapidly promoted to the front bench, and given – for tokenist reasons or otherwise – an enormous personal fastness in the Home Office by David Cameron. And throughout this time, she honed her deadly and previously unassailable skill… of glowering at people and saying nothing until they were so embarrassed they’d do whatever she wanted.
I’ve heard dozens of stories from people at all levels who’ve met or worked with her, that Theresa May is consistently supercilious, distant, unresponsive, unyielding, silent and, all in all, “bloody difficult”. A typical story concerns last year’s Christmas party for Lobby correspondents at 10 Downing Street, when one unfortunate hack found himself standing next to the Prime Minister and, as you do at such events, attempted small talk. “So,” they asked, smiling a little too hard, “ever feel the need to nip next door and borrow a mug of sugar off Philip Hammond?” To which the Prime Minister allegedly replied “Why would I want to borrow a mug of sugar? I have diabetes.” (The natural response the heavens call out for is to shout “That’s right! Milk it, you needy cow!” In sad reality, the hack slunk away nodding and smiling and feeling small and wretched, just as May wanted them to do.)
This propensity for weaponising embarrassment is something May shares with Donald Trump. Since birth, Trump has always got what he’s wanted, so obviously never bothered to develop beyond the factory setting of the toddler’s tantrum. In short, he just behaves as obnoxiously as he can until everyone around him is so embarrassed they give him what he wants because it’s easier and less… well… embarrassing.
The proof of this can be seen in how Trump broke into Atlantic City, notoriously the impregnable preserve of the Mob, who make it their business to stop anyone else muscling in. Except for Donald Trump, who behaved so abominably, combining wheedling vulgarity, bragging, bullying and, for all I know, strategic bedwetting, that all the Mob wanted was to get out of the same room as him and were prepared to give him anything to achieve this ultimate aim. Trump calls this the Art of the Deal; Andrew Neil, who has vast experience of these things, has described Trump as the worst person in every imaginable way that he’s ever met.
Of course, this is an enviable skill if all you want to do is cow everyone around you into bending to your will and doing what you say just because you say so. The trouble is, as May has discovered (though I suspect Trump will never understand it), is that simply stopping the excruciating, cringingly, agonisingly awful embarrassment through total obedience is ultimately insufficient reward for most people – as the British electorate proved in June. And therein lies May’s tiny quotient of tragedy: the seeds of her destruction lay in her own ghastliness.
The wider tragedy, however, is how the embarrassment keeps spreading out, like ripples across the surface of a septic tank or blood through a rug. The months ahead, I suspect, will become almost unbearably embarrassing for everyone as we watch the Tories turning inside out to buttress their embarrassment threshold for Brexit, which is unquestionably now the greatest national embarrassment of any of our lifetimes.