Journalists will sometimes ask a question they know you can’t answer and it’s easy to see how damage can be done. Taking the politics out of it if we can, let’s use the example: “So, prime minister, will you be leading your party into the next election?”
The answer should, you might think, be reasonably straightforward. So consider, when he was asked in 2015, the ramifications when David Cameron said he wouldn’t serve a third term.
It’s easy to snigger and say “you were right there, mate” – but it was an honest answer to an impossible question. At that stage it looked doubtful that his party would win an outright majority, which of course they did – so he risked:
- Looking arrogant if he assumed he would still be prime minister within months (the option he went for, in fact)
- Looking evasive if he tried to dodge the question
Anyone who reads my Facebook posts will be aware I’m no fan, but the direct question in that instance was unanswerable. We’ll come back to the ramifications in a second but he wasn’t the first PM to face that question. His predecessor in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, was also approaching an election when she famously said she’d like to go on and on and on as prime minister, and she was out within three years.
It’s a trap
Circumstances were different for Theresa May this week. Far from approaching an election, at least one of her choosing, she is fresh from losing her majority in one, two years into a Parliament when few people thought she could do as badly.
The question of whether she planned to stay long as PM was arguably reasonable because she could well have been on the brink of resigning only a few months ago after throwing her majority away. However, it wasn’t a fair one to ask.
Like Cameron before her, there was no good answer available to her. Immediately Cameron said he wasn’t staying, he was a lame duck. Going to the EU as he did to ask for a better deal prior to campaigning to remain in it was a waste of time when all of the leaders knew he’d most likely be gone within three years. May is already damaged; if, at this stage in the Brexit negotiations (whatever you think of them and her) she’d effectively confirmed her intention to resign, her credibility and any need for the other countries to listen to her would have been severely damaged.
So she opted for the other extreme – telling the press ‘hell no, I’m staying for the duration’. and the backlash has been swift (here’s one clipping but you can find many more by Googling, including her own former party chairman Grant Shapps pretty much dismissing her on the Today programme.
The alternative was to confirm that she had her eye on the exit door and to lose all remaining authority in the process, Oh, and to trigger a long-winded unofficial leadership campaign among any prospective candidates
So what do you do?
You’re probably not prime minister if you’re reading this, but you may well be in a position in which a journalist asks a question that’s effectively a trap.
Unlike the prime minister you’re not accountable to the electorate and therefore you’re not obliged to answer a journalist’s questions. You can politely decline to help. You can say something is confidential. You can use one of my favourite techniques, the bridge, although if it’s a direct question this can sound slippery.
But do watch out for those “trap” questions. Remember they’re designed to elicit a headline as today’s papers will confirm in the case of May – and for once I have some sympathy because she really couldn’t have said anything else.
Do you need help with your media engagements? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.
This article amended to reflect that Grant Shapps is the former chairman of the Conservative Party, not the current one, 16.13 1 September