BBC: “Do you know what a mugwump is?”
Prime Minister: “What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.”
How I wish that Jeremy Paxman had handled this interview, which was broadcast by BBC Radio Derby last week. Would Paxman have launched a full offensive and asked Theresa May the question 12 times, as he did with Michael Howard in 1997? Poked and prodded until she became exhausted and gave up? Or gone for shock tactics and produced irrevocable evidence that the Prime Minister does, in fact, know what a mugwump is? Like a picture of her reading JK Rowling on a bench outside the Commons.
The Supreme Mugwump is a bigwig position in Harry Potter, and a nickname that Boris Johnson, May’s senior cabinet minister, gave to Jeremy Corbyn. As such, the question to the Prime Minister was entirely justified.
When I did my first media training course 20 years ago, I was told that in an interview I have to answer the question the way that I want to. In other words, learn your message and hammer it on without the slightest reference to what is being asked. This is what May does with her “strong and stable leadership” slogan. This is also what the former Treasury minister Chloe Smith did in an infamous 2012 interview with Paxman:
Paxman: “Do you think you are incompetent?”
Smith: “I think it is valuable to help real people in this way.”
May’s advisers probably told her that if she kept repeating her “key message” on every street corner, it would catch on, make headlines, become part of the national discourse. The reaction was, in fact, the opposite. My favourite response from one of the commentators on Twitter was this: “In the future, May Day will be marked by children decked in flowers stamping around a flagpole chanting ‘Strong and Stable’”.
How is the Prime Minister’s approach to interactive discussion different from my recent exchange with Deliveroo?
Me: “Where is my food?”
Deliveroo: “Your email clearly expresses your disappointment and I would like to extend our sincerest apologies for negative impressions that may have been created.”
Both read from the script. And instead of demonstrating good preparation, such a strategy shows that May’s command of the subject is so shaky that she is afraid to step away from pre-prepared statements in case she is asked a question that she has not rehearsed.
Dodging the question is also a popular strategy in the corporate world. At an AGM of a large retail bank, the chief executive was asked when the bank would install more ATMs in a small town. His response: “The ATM rollout programme remains a key strategic priority for the bank.”
Or this question to the chief executive of an electronics manufacturer at an analyst meeting: “The sensors division has been unprofitable for five years. Are you going to sell it?”
“We always look for ways to enhance shareholder value”.
Let’s imagine that the Prime Minister had allowed herself to be drawn into the discussion about mugwumps. Would it have positioned her as a weak leader? Damaged her chances in the election? Prompted Jean-Claude Juncker to mock her each time they met to talk about Brexit? On the contrary, it would have shown that she was comfortable enough with the interview – and with her policies – to let the conversation take an unpredictable turn.
At the end of my career in the City, I attended another media training course – of a more enlightened variety – where they told us that the trick to a successful interview was to “acknowledge the question”.
I would go further: the trick to a successful interview is to respect the question and respond to it meaningfully.