THERE’S a – probably apocryphal – story I once heard about the first meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May. The FM was wargaming the encounter, which was characterised by considerable political and personal tension. This was a necessary rather than a friendly meeting, after all, but the SNP leader wanted to try to find a human level with her opposite number, if at all possible.

May appeared, trailed by flunkies with a bundle of lines to take in hand. Trying to ­establish a bit of a rapport with the ­famously frosty new leader of the ­Conservative ­Party, Sturgeon paid a passing compliment to ­Theresa May’s footwear. So thrown was the Prime Minister by this simple human ­moment, she looked down immediately at her notes for a scripted response. As the story has it, her staffers hadn’t included instructions on how to respond ­spontaneously to a light-hearted sartorial aside, so answer came there none. Awkward silence reigned. Theresa’s human suit failed.

Politicians reliably generate myths like this. These tales may or may not be true – but they ring true, capturing ­something of the underlying personalities and their ­frailties. You can just imagine the ­stilted look, the lengthening quiet and the ­prevailing tension in the room as the social temperature plummeted.

Remember the one about Peter ­Mandelson? The apparatchik was visiting a chip shop in his Hartlepool ­constituency and mistook a cauldron of mushy peas for guacamole. A fabrication, perhaps, but one which neatly summarised the social distance separating the third man in the Blair-Brown relationship and the ordinary Labour voter – a New Labour parable if you like.

READ MORE: The free-market think tank lurking behind Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng

Listening to Liz Truss tour Britain’s ­local airwaves last week – or more precisely, ­listening to the yawning, agonising ­silences the new PM built into her robotic and ­repetitive answers to Rima in Leeds and John in Stoke – the vision of May drying up popped back into my head.

Where do we find these people? ­Having been posted missing for days, Truss’s ­surprise reappearance speaking unto ­regions and nations turned into a ­public ­relations disaster. One of her special ­advisers must be a sleeper agent of exquisite malice, doing excellent work for the fifth column. If the idea was to side-step the ­biases of Broadcasting House and ­address the plain people of Bristol and Teesside directly, it didn’t quite work out that way. That’s the diplomatic summary.

The risks should have been obvious. ­Instead of fielding a single short ­interview on national radio or TV which was ­guaranteed to focus on a closed list of issues, Truss was waylaid for an hour not only about the national headlines about the Bank of England interventions, the pound’s collapse, and the ­inflationary pressures on the mortgage market – but queries on fracking, planning policy, the state of local hospitals, and threats to the marine environment.

Unbriefed, and hopeless without a brief, listeners were treated to seven-beat ­silences which belong in cringe comedy, before Truss’s synapses finally snapped her back on to script: Ukraine. Putin. Global economic challenges. And repeat.

You know I like weird politicians. Like is a strong word – the wrong word. In our age of retail politics, where more ­attention is lavished on the performance than the substance of policy, there’s something curious about the oddbod, the charmless and the strange who push their way to the front of the pack and decide the nation deserves to benefit from their particular talents. And yet our politics is full of them.

But last week brought a temporary halt to the overriding attitude that politics is best approached as a game without ­consequences, best reported ­aesthetically, dishing out stars for convincing ­platform performances, gambits bold, and ­slogans clever, mainly of concern to a ­self-delighted coterie of worldly and in-the-know ­insiders who’re just happy to be cut into the story and to do their part in distracting and misinforming the public.

Savvy politics can’t spin away interest rate hikes and a tanking pound. There’s no pre-hashed line or clever zinger which will disguise the real-world ­consequences of the UK Government’s economic ­choices for people’s mortgage rates and housing tenure.

You don’t need a refined sense of irony to gawk in wonder at the fact that that a tax policy which was designed to benefit a small number of high-end homeowners concentrated in southeast England has, in fact, conspired to screw over anyone in Britain on a floating rate, or whose fixed-rate deal with their bank is coming to an end. The latter group is ­considerably larger than the former. And this time, it would seem, the public have noticed. Labour have made none of the running. They haven’t had to. Every crisis, every scandal, every setback which has beset this administration has been its own ­creation.

The American folk singer Phil Ochs ­defined a liberal as someone “ten ­degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten ­degrees to the right of centre if it ­affects them personally”. Your average ­Conservative voter isn’t so different. It is one thing for the poor to be immiserated. The cruelty becomes less recreational when it affects “our people”. Divide and rule strategies collapse when the public divide against you.

The UK Government’s response? To double down – on everything. There’s to be more of the same. Whether or not they featured in the last ­Conservative ­manifesto, whether or not the ­public ­support them, the doctrines are to be ­serviced and the small gods of the ­Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs appeased.

This weekend Simon Clarke, the new Secretary of State for “levelling up, ­housing and communities”, told the press that the Prime Minister is “enjoying” the new financial ecosystem she has ­created. Clarke is reportedly part of Truss’s ­critical life support system in cabinet – and he went further in setting out the exciting new opportunities for disaster capitalism which this administration has planned for the country.

We’re living in a “fool’s paradise,” he said, if we think we can continue with our “very large welfare state”. He suggests Whitehall should brace itself to “trim the fat” of public spending in order to settle up the deficit-funded tax cuts Truss and Kwarteng crashed the gilt markets with.

READ MORE: 'That's not how it works at all': Stephen Kerr's attack on Scots voting system debunked

THIS follows heavy hints from the Chancellor that he intends to squeeze social security claimants till the pips squeak in the name of forcing more people into work. Kwarteng is on record arguing for a radical contraction in the welfare state. He thinks too many folk have access to the social safety net. Young unemployed people, for example, have contributed diddly squat to the exchequer – and according to Kwarteng, should get nothing back from it either.

In a 2015 policy screed, he argued “young individuals who have not yet paid national insurance contributions for a certain period, five years say, could ­receive their unemployment benefit in the form of a repayable loan”. But don’t be alarmed. He also wants to make “sure that the system is not cruel to those who have simply been unlucky” – because the real problem with the benefits system is its misdirected cruelty – not the cruelty itself. You’ve got to ensure the right folk suffer. The cruelty is the point.

So the big idea is to make further cuts to universal credit, ignoring ­inflation, ­ignoring the rising cost of basic ­necessities like food and energy – to pay for giving the richest people in the ­country an extra £55 grand a year to play with. The plan is to ­settle cheques for millionaires on the back of the poor, and win back ­public ­support by rolling out tried-and-tested penny dreadfuls about benefit ­scroungers, the idleness of the lumpenproletariat, and the entertaining brutality which the ­Government hasn’t yet got around to ­inflicting on the undeserving poor.

I suppose it’s possible to dream up a more obscene policy in the name of ­“levelling up Britain’s communities” – but I can’t think of one.