The crying game: is it ever OK for politicians to sob in public?

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The sight of Matt Hancock weeping on ITV reminds us that tears don’t always have the effect our leaders might want

Screenshot from Good Morning Britain of Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on the left hand side of a split screen, with Matt Hancock on the right hand side wiping away a tear
Matt Hancock on GMB. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Neither did he. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Matt Hancock on GMB. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Neither did he. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Sun 13 Dec 2020 06.30 EST

Viewers of ITV’s Good Morning Britain were treated to an unusual spectacle on Tuesday morning: the phoney political weep. Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid watched as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was shown footage of William Shakespeare, an 81-year-old from Warwickshire, receiving the UK’s second coronavirus jab. William Shakespeare. From Warwickshire. If you thought the billions of public pounds that have vanished this year were siphoned off by Tory cronies, you’d be wrong. In fact they were spent keeping William Shakespeare alive, guarded by the SAS, for this patriotic photo opportunity.

After Hancock watched the clip, something strange happened. The MP for West Suffolk paused and then raised his right knuckle to his eye. He smirked before attempting to squeeze out a single perfect tear for Piers. It didn’t work. His face was as dry afterwards as it was before.

“You’re quite emotional there,” Piers said, a note of scepticism in his voice. Morgan is the Mozart of making people cry. Through his Life Stories franchise he has provoked blubbing in everyone from Jayne Torvill to Cristiano Ronaldo. He can spot a crocodile at 1,000 paces. “It’s just been such a tough year for so many people,” Hancock said, visibly thinking mainly of Matt Hancock.

He wasn’t the only politician to find this week a bit much. Across the soon-to-be-fortified North Sea, Angela Merkel’s voice cracked as she urged her citizens to stick to the coronavirus rules.

You can see why leaders are drawn to crying as a tool. Voters claim to want their elected leaders to be “real people”, and “authentic”. Winston Churchill cried so frequently – at funerals, when he was made chancellor, when Parliament applauded him for sinking the French fleet – that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson nicknamed him “Cry-Baby”. When he wept on a visit to an East End air raid shelter in 1940, a woman called out: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying!”

Barack Obama’s tears as he spoke about the Sandy Hook massacre in 2016 were widely seen as evidence he was a feeling leader who’d hit his breaking point on gun violence. When Hillary Clinton cried in a 2008 New Hampshire primary it helped prove she was human.

In an age where short video clips are shared to millions within minutes, a few well-timed tears can be a shortcut to sympathy, but crying in public is a risky business. Donald Trump has said the last time he’d cried was when he was a baby, and that he sees it as a sign of weakness in men. Plenty agree. Ed Muskie’s alleged tears in the 1972 Democratic primary basically cost him the nomination. Margaret Thatcher was accused of being less than iron-like when she cried.

Recent examples are hardly more edifying. Theresa May looked weak crying as she resigned. George Osborne blubbing at Thatcher’s funeral was widely derided. Even Obama’s tears were scrutinised for signs of fraud.

Journalists crying has become more common. It’s not enough to read the reports. You now have to show you’re moved by them, too. When Van Jones, the political commentator, broke down on CNN as it became clear that Trump wasn’t going to be re-elected, there were rumblings from some quarters that he might be over-egging it.

For crying to be effective it has to at least appear spontaneous. The real thing is easier to recognise than describe. In 2014 ITV surprised the ex-footballer Ian Wright with his inspirational teacher Mr Pigden. Wright broke down. He’d thought he was dead. You can tell the real deal because the weeper’s instinct is often to try to conceal it. Nobody likes how they look when they’re crying. Wright covered his face with his hat.

In general, sportsmen can cry whenever they like, because we have no expectations they’ll be mature or composed. Andy Murray has the look of someone who’s going to bludgeon you on Culloden Moor, but in fact cries at the merest provocation.

Actors are an unusual case. If they can cry on demand, they ought to be able to not cry on demand, which is why the Oscars waterworks tend to stick in the craw. But they’re paid to have a lot of emotions near the surface. Crying has been co-opted by talent show formats because it makes good TV. If you’ve been ejected from Bake Off or The X Factor, not crying marks you out as a psychopath.

Matt Hancock is not the kind of politician who cries. He’s the epitome of the middle-manager type, who sticks to the script and can take a beating when necessary. You got the sense that he knew the whole Good Morning Britain situation was ridiculous, so only half committed. It almost looked as though he was laughing. William Shakespeare (the original, with all respect to the newly vaccinated man in Warwickshire) knew how fine the lines are between comedy, tragedy and farce.

By sobbing at little things as well as big set pieces, Churchill proved that he had a depth of feeling, rather than an eye for PR. The lesson for politicians is simple: if you’re going to cry, cry all the time. Matt Hancock will get a chance to prove it when Winston Churchill from Oxfordshire gets his jabs next week.