Britain's strangely spasmodic PM

Andrew Donaldson writes on Theresa May's African tour


LAST weekend, you will recall, the Pope paid a brief visit to Ireland, a territory that has in recent years strayed a little too far from the straight and narrow for the Vatican’s comfort. 

His trip received widespread coverage, but one headline in particular stood out: “The Pope flew over Gloucestershire this morning.”

In a novel, if parochial take on the story, GloucestershireLive — the Gloucestershire Echo’s digital news operation — traced the pontiff’s flight from Rome and informed its awed readers: “Pope Francis may well have looked down on Gloucestershire … as he flew directly above the county on his way to Ireland.”

In much the same spirit, we can reveal that Theresa May flew over the Mahogany Ridge when she left Cape Town on Wednesday for Nigeria and the next leg of her smous safari.

And yes, the British premier may also have looked down on us as she jetted off to Lagos. Not that she’d have seen anything, of course. We have a pitched roof over our heads here.

But she may be pleased to know that our standards have not lapsed at the Ridge. 

We remove our hats, for example, when we enter the premises. Rap music is not tolerated. Junior members and their guests may not cross over to the seniors’ side of the bar where the fireplace and comfy chairs are unless permission is granted to buy us a round. That sort of thing.

More importantly, we have learnt not to make fun of the way people dance — if, that is, the seizure that May suffered at Gugulethu’s ID Mkhize Secondary School on Tuesday, can be termed as such.

No, we’ll leave that to others, like the Times of London’s Carol Midgley, who was clearly intrigued by her strangely spasmodic prime minister. 

Noting she had “all the rhythm of a mechanical wheelie bin”, Midgley wrote: “Why do politicians put themselves through this? Why do May’s advisers let it happen when they know they know she’ll wear that smiling-through-the-pain expression of a constipated giraffe and the result will be instant ridicule? It’s cruel.”

It was indeed painful but, God knows, in our experience the average wedding tends to throw up more embarrassing moments when the father of the bride loosens his tie and starts bothering his daughter’s friends on the dance floor.

Worse was to come for May. Her trip to Robben Island allowed Michael Crick, Channel 4’s political correspondent, to give her an awkward and cheap-shot going over on camera. 

As an active Tory during the 1970s and ‘80s, an acolyte of Mrs Thatcher, what had the prime minister done to secure Mandela’s release? Did she disagree with her leader that he was a terrorist? Boycotted anything? Had she joined demonstrators outside the embassy? Been arrested? Raised concerns about the injustice of it all?  

And, of course, she had done nothing of the sort — which Crick had known from the start. So it was all a waste of time and a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

In our opinion, though, more politicians should spend time on the island, and not just for the by-now mandatory pilgrimage and photo opportunity in Mandela’s old cell. For one, our budding Pol Pot, Julius Malema, could certainly do with a few years there.

One aspect of May’s visit that was quite irksome was its palpable air of desperation. 

The last time a British prime minister visited the continent was in 2013, and that was for Mandela’s funeral. Contrast this with France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has visited Africa nine times in the 15 months he has been in office.

For all the chitter-chatter about rolling over existing trade deals so that the UK can “continue to enjoy southern African wine, tea and fruits”, the trip really was about getting an exotic backdrop to convince the Remainers in her party that there really was a life for “global Britain” outside the European Union.

Important as such deals no doubt are, critics point out they will do little to offset the damage coming with a hard Brexit. Compare the continent’s combined GDP with that of the EU’s — an estimated $2.2 trillion as opposed to $19.7-trillion — and it’s clear May needs to up her dancing moves fairly sharpish if that’s what’s needed to secure trade partners.

Dismayingly, and like so many of her predecessors, May seems happy to ignore the fact that some of these partners are very dodgy indeed: dealing with corrupt governments and pouring billions in aid money into their coffers does not assist in development. 

As matters stand, May’s government is not helping democracy in Africa, but hindering it.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.