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Awkward? Cringeworthy? Why Theresa May Uncovered was actually a hit

PUBLISHED: 12:43 18 September 2018

Richard Porritt interviews prime minister Theresa May. Picture: Nick Butcher

Richard Porritt interviews prime minister Theresa May. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2017

Has a prime minister ever faced such a crucial few months during peacetime?

Theresa May – whatever anyone thinks of her – is up against it.

She was a cautious Remainer. Mrs May wanted the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union but in a speech delivered prior to the vote she was clear in her belief that even if the public voted us out the country would continue to prosper.

Back then she had no idea she would be the one in charge of taking the UK out of Europe.

It is extraordinary Mrs May has survived to this point: a failed election fuelled by hubris, a party fighting like rats in a bag and growing dissent towards her leadership.

Theresa May interviewed by Richard PorrittTheresa May interviewed by Richard Porritt

And now she faces her most difficult task to date – persuading parliament and the public that her Brexit Chequers plan is the right choice for the country.

So far it isn’t going well. Getting the plan through the House of Commons is going to be very tricky.

With that in mind the prime minister has launched a charm offensive on the public. The thinking is clear: if they back it the MPs will fall into line.

And so the doors of Number 10 were flung open and the BBC’s Panorama cameras welcomed in. Mrs May is often depicted as awkward and cold, this was her chance to prove she was in fact the leader this country so desperately needs.

But was it a good idea? Mrs May has tried to appear more human before – remember the cringeworthy One Show interview ? – and it has backfired. But in recent weeks there has been a slightly more relaxed atmosphere around the PM. Would Mrs May have danced with African school children a year ago?

I’ve interviewed Mrs May twice and watched her at close quarters on numerous occasions.

As home secretary I witnessed her deliver a brutal dressing down to the Police Federation that was met with a stone-cold silence, and yet she seemed to revel in it. As prime minister she has struggled to replicate such authority.

It appeared Mrs May was to be Britain’s new Iron lady but in reality – and faced with an almost impossible set of circumstances – she often appears to be more like Mr Bean.

And yet in the brief moments before my note pad and pen came out and after my last questions had been asked Mrs May proved to be a gracious and thoughtful person. In the dying days of the wretched Tory general election campaign it was the prime minister who asked me “how has your election gone?”

This documentary, presented by the brilliant Nick Robinson, was an incredible insight into life in Downing Street. For the most part Mrs May came across well. She appeared in control, authoritative and understanding.

During the sit-down interviews scattered throughout the show she performed perhaps as well as she ever has.

It was all going so well ... and then she tried to come across as normal.

Sat in a living room at her country retreat Chequers with husband Philip, Theresa May watched a quiz show. And the cringe factor turned up to 11.

Allowing such access was always going to be risky. It is difficult to be completely natural and relaxed with a camera crew in your face.

But in the end Panorama will be seen as a triumph for Mrs May. Some of the complexities facing the premier are now clearer to the general public.

Whether you are Tory, Labour, Leaver for ardent Europhile it is clear that Mrs May is trying as hard as she can. What is not yet clear is whether that will be enough.

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