Theresa May has a very special technique for avoiding questions

… and cue trapdoor. PA/Stefan Rousseau

British prime minister Theresa May notoriously kept quiet about her position on membership of the EU ahead of the June referendum, avoiding coming down on either side of the debate. Arguably, her sphinx-like stance was a highly significant factor in propelling her to the premiership, while other leading candidates were busy stabbing one another in the back.

Politicians are often castigated for equivocation. They are accused of being the sort of people who never give a “straight answer to a straight question”. But to what extent is their reputation for evasiveness justified? I’ve studied their techniques for years, identifying a reply rate to assess how often politicians actually answer the question.

May is a particularly interesting case. She has a very distinctive approach to avoiding difficult questions. This was in evidence in two interviews she gave to Andrew Marr in September and October, just after she took over at Number 10.

In the first interview, May gave explicit replies to only 14% of Marr’s questions. This contrasts with my previous analyses of 33 broadcast interviews with other British political leaders, where I found an average reply rate of 46%. Similarly, a 1991 study of interviews with British political leaders found a reply rate of 39%. That said, in May’s second interview with Marr on October 2, her reply rate was 41% – directly comparable to that of these previous studies.

I have also devised an equivocation typology – a means of identifying different techniques for not replying to questions. Over the years, I’ve identified 35 different techniques including attacking the question, re-phrasing the question, even making personal attacks on the interviewer (as Margaret Thatcher sometimes did).

But to capture May’s distinctive equivocation style in these two interviews, I had to add a totally new category. I’m calling it “gives non-specific response to a specific question”.

So when Marr asked: “In your view, should we have access to the single European market?” May responded: “Well what I want to see is the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services”. To Marr’s question about a second independence referendum in Scotland: “Would you prevent that second referendum happening?” May responded: “I don’t think it’s a question of whether there could be a second referendum, it’s whether there should be a second referendum”.

May’s responses are polite and relevant to the substance of the question, but do not provide the requested information. She doesn’t say whether the UK should have access to the single European market, nor whether she would prevent a second independence referendum in Scotland. Notably, across the two interviews, a mean 88% of her non-replies include this strategy of giving a non-specific response to a specific question.

Why we equivocate

Of course, equivocal responses to questions cannot be considered independently of the questions themselves. According to one theory, people (not just politicians) equivocate to questions which pose what is termed a “communicative conflict”. This is when all of the possible responses have potentially negative consequences, but where nevertheless a response is still expected.

So, for example someone might receive a present they don’t like from a friend. If asked: “Do you like the present?”, they are faced with a communicative conflict: to lie and pretend to like the present, or to risk upsetting the friend by saying they dislike it. Or they might equivocate by saying: “It was a really kind thought.” That avoids hurting the friend’s feelings but doesn’t actually answer the question about liking the present.

We all equivocate in certain situations but politicians are particularly prone to it. That’s not necessarily because they are devious, slippery or evasive, but because conflict is endemic to politics, and politicians get asked a lot of questions that cause communicative conflicts. These conflicts occur especially when all the main forms of response may make the politician look bad or threaten their future freedom of action.

May meets Marr in Birmingham. PA/Stefan Rousseau

Undoubtedly, a headline conflict that has plagued British politics for decades is whether to stay or leave the EU. So questions about EU membership naturally create communicative conflicts for May. Given this is such a divisive issue, whichever line she takes will upset a lot of people both in her own party, and in the country as a whole.

From this perspective, May’s equivocation is entirely understandable. But is it sustainable? As parliamentarians increasingly press for greater details of the government’s Brexit strategy, May’s tactic of giving evasive responses to specific questions becomes increasingly transparent, and open to challenge.

It might be that her skills in equivocation played an important role in bringing her to the premiership, but now her opaqueness might be less an asset, more a liability. Indeed, as these parliamentary challenges gather momentum, May’s Brexit strategy may come under increasing threat and begin to unravel, as she struggles to address dilemmas created by bitterly contested competing interests.