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By Jason Michael

There’s something profoundly unsettling about watching a Prime Minister walk like John Wayne.

So this thing happened. Theresa May came onto the podium at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester back in 2015 and did this thing, this very weird looking thing. As if to embody what “strong and stable” might look like mid-mushroom trip, she spread her legs – more John Wayne than her namesake Teresa May, clenched her butt cheeks, and thrust her pelvis at the audience. The whole ensemble had a distinct Cruella de Vil vibe about it; if you can imagine this animated villain soaking wet, deflated, and enduring a severe flare up of haemorrhoids, that is.

Zoe Williams in The Guardian was a tad more prosaic in her description of the event, writing only that the Prime Minister “went full legs-apart-lean-back, like a person about to shoot a gun at a hurricane.” Other than looking awful, no one was quite sure they had seen anything quite like it before; except they had. This was a pose struck – somewhat less awkwardly – by her predecessor David Cameron. We’d later see it from Boris and George Osborne and now from the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid on his first day on the job.

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It turns out that this is supposed to be a political power pose, no doubt one dreamt up by some apprentice in a Tory PR firm who had overdosed on a Blackadder the Third box-set the night before. Few really noticed when Cameron did it. Considering his proclivity for decapitated swine, witnesses could be forgiven for mistaking his odd posture as some class of treatment. May doing it was just inappropriate, but now that she has been followed by other would be Elvis impersonators; Osborne, Johnson, and Javid, we can safely say this fashion has run its course.

The power pose has a long history in politics, and – let’s face it – we have been doing this sort of thing ever since we came down from the trees. Gorillas and chimpanzees – Boris Johnson’s closest cousins – are famous for it. We’ve all seen a giant silverback puff up his chest in the zoo before firing his shite at the reinforced glass enclosure wall. Looking tough is to political leadership what dim-wittedness and racism are to Scottish unionism.

Before the global financial apocalypse and the descent of international political standards into the Great Trumpist Tribulation there were other power pose fads. The people behind the making of George W. and Tony Blair, obviously being purists for the simian alpha male gesture, introduced us to the back of the hand; an unmistakable display of power. This was a favourite of Barack Obama’s, and – in fairness – he carried it well. Watching Gordon Brown and David Cameron attempt it, however, packed all the punch of a nine year old challenging us to a square go.

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No sooner than all the political lightweights began to ruin the back of the hand with their silly Obama impressions than the rules changed. Probably lifted straight from the character of David Brent in The Office, the new power display would be a display of power so powerful it no longer required to be dressed for work. In fairness this trend had its beginnings during the W.-Blair period too, when some pretty mediocre players on the international stage got the chance to walk on the beach with the big boys without their ties and their top buttons undone. Only Bertie Ahern – “the Man from Del Monte” in the picture – then Irish Taoiseach, never got the ‘smart-but-casual’ memo.

In the days before the real Donald Trump introduced us to his unique brand of aircraft marshalling in political speeches the ‘power of cool’ began to undress – quite literally. Almost appealing to the alienated and predominantly disenfranchised ordinary working (or angry white) man Trump would finally woo, the élan of the global political brass threw off the stiff suit jacket and rolled up its sleeves. Having grown up, like many in the Central Belt, in a factory, I know what it means to take off the jacket and roll up the sleeves. The difference is that we did it to work. Seeing some overgrown private school lout, without so much as a callus, affect the necessary dress accommodations of someone with a “real job” was always just going to be patronising.

Of course, these were only conventions and passing crazes in our part of the world. In Russia, Vladimir Putin never went in for puerile displays of bourgeois, shopkeeper machismo. Where Cameron could only manage a pig’s head Vlad went the whole hog with his Леди Годива routine in the Urals. Each to their own, I suppose.

This is the thing with derivative western political culture – something Britain’s Tories have taken to whole new depths; it gets progressively worse and less convincing with each new generation. Gone are the days of a marbled Gaius Octavius Thurinus as Caesar Augustus – vultus bonus, ut me addere – pointing the way ahead for Pax Romana. Now we don’t even have an effete William of Orange on his gee-gee. We have been reduced to this: Middling civil servants accidentally promoted – through the rigours of last man standing – to leadership, poised as though bracing to release excess gas.

But, in the final analysis, this may be the political posture of our age. In a world where detailed policy discussion has been boiled down to soundbites and near meaningless slogans, where the PR-assisted tailoring of reality has displaced governance with performance, perhaps the theatrical exhibition of third-rate entertainers breaking wind is quite fitting.

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Your body language may shape who you are | Amy Cuddy


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