Book review: 18 months in the life of Maybot

Book review: 18 months in the life of Maybot

I, Maybot: The Rise and Fall, by John Crace

Reviewed by Gregg McClymont

As an MP, the minister I respected most was the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Both in the House of Commons and outside, her approach to the job struck me as straightforward, calm and direct.

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Mrs May resolutely refused to engage in the kind of relentless point scoring which characterises modern politics. She was a woman of few words publicly and I admired that. She kept her head down and got on with a very tough brief. She seemed to me the “grown up” choice when the Conservative leadership fell vacant.

This book – written by the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer – offers a collection of his finest pieces written over the last 18 months, perhaps the most tumultuous period in postwar British political history, and certainly the most turbulent since the two General Elections of 1974.

His theme is Theresa May’s trials and tribulations as PM.

Mr Crace captures the dramatic bursting of Mrs May’s honeymoon period balloon. Calling a general election was hardly an unreasonable tactic given her party enjoyed a 20 point lead in the polls. Even if she had previously promised there would be no early election. But the rigours of the campaign exposed the prime minister’s fundamental weakness - namely her lack of the broader communication skills necessary in a national leader in 21st century politics.

Mr Crace is well placed to illuminate this deficiency. After all, sketch writing is about analysing the sayings and doings of politicians (especially the sayings). Done well, it makes us laugh while illuminating something important about an individual’s character and temperament.

Mr Crace achieved this with his “Maybot” moniker, which provides the book’s title. It has of course entered the political lexicon over the last year as a telling characterisation of the robotic persona which Mrs May offered during those disastrous six weeks in the spring.

A silver tongue is not a pre-requisite for the job of PM but an aspirant at least needs to be quick on their feet so as to parry difficult questions credibly, as well as an ability to use persuasive metaphors and everyday imagery to tell a positive story to the public.

There is a reason why so many leading politicians over the centuries have been lawyers. It’s because a way with words is a huge asset. In the end, convincing people of your case demands on the one hand story-telling, and on the other the flexibility to ward off the blows of opponents and inquisitors.

Mrs May achieved neither. As Mr Crace observed during one of the PM’s painful campaign visits (on this occasion to a Bath engineering factory where she was asked to explain her TV debates non-appearance): “The Maybot usually deals either in tautology or non-sequitur, but this time her system has crashed completely and she had managed both at the same time”.