UK Politics

Why the fuss over George Osborne's tears?

Chancellor George Osborne, Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha

Many people cry at funerals. So why have Chancellor George Osborne's tears over Lady Thatcher generated so much interest?

We have come a long way since footballer Paul Gascoigne supposedly made it all right for British men to cry in public.

The idea was that far from being seen as a sign of weakness, displays of emotion were a sign that someone was a fully rounded human being.

But away from sport and reality TV - and especially in the buttoned-up world of British politics - public tears are still relatively rare.

It is certainly a side of Chancellor George Osborne the public have not seen before.

Mr Osborne shed a tear during the Bishop of London's sermon at Lady Thatcher's funeral service while many others, who had known her far better than the 41-year-old chancellor, managed to keep their emotions in check.

It was the Right Reverend Richard Chartres's story about a nine-year-old boy, who had asked Lady Thatcher if she had ever done anything wrong, that seems to have done the trick.

'Shame'

The chancellor managed a brief smile but was soon choking back the tears, in contrast to David Cameron, who listened to the same story without showing emotion.

When the ceremony was over Mr Osborne tweeted that it had been "a moving, almost overwhelming day".

Image caption Paul Gascoigne made it OK for British men to cry after defeat in the 1990 World Cup semi-final

If the chancellor, a recent convert to Twitter, found time to see how his display of grief had gone down with fellow users he would have been in for a nasty shock.

He was accused of shedding "crocodile tears", of weeping because he had just realised he would never be prime minister and much worse.

Andrew Lilico, former chief economist at the Policy Exchange think tank, leapt to Mr Osborne's defence, tweeting: "Shame on all of you that are mocking Osborne for crying at a funeral. Do you never cry yourselves?"

Mr Lilico, an old friend of Mr Osborne's, argues that he has deliberately cultivated an austere image to counter early portrayals of him as a callow lightweight, up against the "clunking fist" of Gordon Brown.

He is also happy to act as a "lightning rod" for David Cameron, soaking up attacks that would otherwise damage the prime minster.

"We got a little of the underlying George Osborne [at the funeral], who normally tries to project himself as a distant and remote figure. Anybody who has ever known him knows he is not really like that," says Mr Lilico.

'Trivial'

What was interesting, he adds, is that some of the criticism came from "pro-Thatcher" voices, who felt he had not kept to the "stiff upper lip" image that she epitomised so well.

But could a display of emotion by a man who sometimes appears stiff and awkward in public be the making of the chancellor?

There was a time when political leaders would do anything to avoid being pictured in tears, as it was seen as a sign of weakness.

But Mr Osborne's direct Labour adversary, Ed Balls, recently admitted to shedding a tear or two at episodes of The Antiques Roadshow and the US comedy Modern Family.

Nick Clegg, who was also at Lady Thatcher's funeral, defended the chancellor against his social media critics on his weekly radio phone-in, saying: "You've got to give any man or woman the liberty to cry if they want to.

"I don't think we should criticise someone for showing emotion."

PR expert Mark Borkowski said it was "a reminder of how incredibly focused we are on politicians' appearances," describing it as "a trivial moment".

'Thatcherite'

Labour opponents have long sought to allot George Osborne the role of pantomime "Tory toff".

Tony Blair's former spin doctor Lance Price says the footage from St Paul's will "not do him any harm" as it was an authentic, humanising moment.

"I think if politicians show genuine emotion like that, and I think it was genuine, then, on the whole, the public respond quite well to it. What they hate is when people do it for cynical reasons."

But he adds: "Shedding a few tears at Lady Thatcher's funeral is going to make very little difference to people's judgement of his time as chancellor, the impact of his decisions and policies and whether what he said would happen has happened.

"It showed him to be a genuine Thatcherite and that will appeal to some and will equally repel others."