Theresa May doesn’t do spontaneous but she’s a champion. Most of the time, to the delight and profit of the parliamentary sketchwriters’ guild, she is scripted and self-disciplined to a fault. She repeats her lines until the repetition is a form of torture. So how do we explain it if, just once, she strays momentarily off piste?
Don’t get this wrong that she’s champion. Off piste for May is an extremely relative concept. It is not the same as for Boris Johnson. Blink and, in May’s case, you miss it. Most of the time, the vicar’s daughter’s approach to her job seems to echo the words of Lucy Baldwin, wife of the Tory prime minister Stanley, who, when asked at Lord Curzon’s funeral in 1925 whether she was a believer, replied: “I am indeed, and I must tell you that every morning when we rise, we kneel together before God and commend our day to Him, praying that some good work may be done in it by us. It is not for ourselves that we are working, but for the country and for God’s sake. How else could we live?”
Nevertheless, there was no blinking or missing the brief spark of anger and combativeness this week, when May was challenged in the House of Commons by Labour’s Heidi Alexander, who accused her of “running scared” of her party’s extreme right over Brexit. May got to her feet, threw her briefing notes on the desk, said “whoops” as she gathered up her straying papers, and glared at the Labour MP. Alexander, May insisted with unusual emphasis, “could not be more wrong”.
For May to react in that way is tremendously out of character. So the more one reflects on why she had that brief and uncharacteristic rush of blood in the Commons, the more it feels as if Alexander touched a nerve.
If that’s right, then the thing that matters about the exchange is surely this. May is weakened and under pressure. She had a rotten party conference, and Johnson and the press are incorrigible troublemakers. But the big thing May thinks she is doing as prime minister, as the moment of truth on Brexit gets closer, is to stand up against the dogmatic Brexiteers while trying to hold the Tory party together.