Theresa May’s former Director of Communications, Katie Perrior, described the media as “eating out of the palm of [May’s] hand” even before she became the leader of the Conservative Party. How has she gone from that position to that of a dead woman walking?
May was once heralded as the “Steel Lady”, a safe pair of hands to steer Britain through the tumultuous process of leaving the European Union. She promised to restore social justice and reduce inequality. She was seen as a fresh break from the inescapable privilege of David Cameron. The daughter of a vicar, the media portrayed May as a restorer of ‘good old British values’.
Perrior, who was speaking at City, University of London in February, was the Director of Communications at Number 10 for just shy of a year before resigning from her position after the snap general election was called. She said that Theresa May had effortlessly held the backing of both the Remain-leaning newspapers and the Brexit media.
During her leadership campaign, according to Perrior, the Brexit papers would say to May, “we’ll give you lots of favourable coverage if you say something positive about Brexit.” The other side would then promise her interviews if she expressed “caution about moving forward with the process.”
“We were in the unique position of being able to please both sides,” Perrior explained. This would go on to explain the label of “Theresa the Appeaser.” She rarely express any policies or ideas of her own on key topics of policy such as Britain’s relationship with Europe, or on the NHS, because the media did not demand it. This would not last. In some ways it was this early relationship with the media that would weaken her position later on.
A tough act to follow
May’s predecessor, David Cameron, has been described by many as a product of Tony Blair. The comparisons not only stretched to policy but also to his well-spun press image. “He had the gift of the gab. You could see he was good and enjoyed interacting with the media.” says Perrior.
Cameron had an effective way of using pictures to project an image of himself. The “Hug a Hoodie” and “Hug a Husky” campaigns spread the compassionate conservatism that some might call his legacy. He employed an army of special advisers and public relations mercenaries and was the first social media literate prime minister. He remains the only social media literate prime minister.
In stark contrast, Perrior described how the public relations environment at Number 10 transformed overnight under May. “We don’t do publicity like DC. [May] just doesn’t want to do that kind of media. Social media stopped. We’re over spin now. That was the brief.”
A print-press throwback
May, who avoids risk and dialogue, is perhaps not made for these times. The public wants television debates and a presidential-style circus. People are hungry for controversy, personality and conflict. May called an election, did not attend television debates, encouraged the population into thinking she had spent her youth running through fields of wheat, while the rest of the country grew up with rock and roll.
Perrior described prepping May for an interview and asking her what she cooks for Philip at home. May’s reply reportedly went into extraordinary detail, fussing about how she habitually serves carrots. Contrast this with Blair’s calculated but authentic young-Dad projection and Cameron’s family-man image.
At was not long before the inflexible and closed Prime Minister began to be described as “the Maybot”. “Theresa’s approach to broadcast media was the reason it all went horribly wrong for the conservative party,” Perrior states. “I actually felt very sorry for her,” says Perrior, who recalls seeing May’s face plastered on the side of a bus during the election campaign and thinking, “this is not you at all.” In short, Theresa May is not someone who wants to be marketed. But, modern politics is all about marketing.
She has been unlucky. Perrior states, “David Cameron had four years to prepare for his premiership. May had four minutes.” She had no time to test policy, speak to think tanks and to businesses, use polls and surveys. Her manifesto’s social care policy, where she u-turned on a so-called “Dementia tax”, is a good example. “She just had to whack it in the manifesto and then it was no wonder everyone had a breakdown about it.”
Perrior argues in May’s defence, stating, “if you make her laugh, she opens up and is engaging. If you go in hard, Paxman style, she closes up into a shell.” She reportedly loves children and clearly has a very close marriage to her husband. “When people are mean about Theresa, they don’t realise she is a genuine public servant and does not a bad bone in her body.”
She will inevitably go and when she does “it will happen very quickly,” Perrior states. “History will be kind to her and she will be remembered for trying her very best to guide Great Britain through an impossibly turbulent period.”