The big theme of Theresa May’s closing speech to the Conservative conference was “the British dream” – but it turned into a nightmare for the Prime Minister. She was thrown off her stride by a prank – comedian Simon Brodkin who handed her a “P45”, he said, on Boris Johnson’s behalf – and her 65-minute address was marred by repeated coughing fits.
Although the Tory faithful in the hall rallied behind her and helped her to struggle through to the end, the speech will be remembered for being a presentational disaster rather than for its content. There are inevitable parallels with the 2003 Tory conference speech of Iain Duncan Smith, who regularly lost his voice on set-piece occasions. Amid calls for him to resign, he survived that conference by pledging that the “quiet man” would now “turn up the volume”. His audience in Blackpool also rallied behind him. But three weeks later he quit after Tory MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him.
A lot of Tories will now be wondering whether May will suffer the same fate. Her ordeal in the conference hall was even more painful than Duncan Smith’s – he had cheerleaders strategically placed during his speech. While there will be public sympathy for May, her MPs may be less forgiving.
Her speech should have been the moment when she fought back after a difficult conference and sent the Tories home with a sense of purpose and optimism. Instead they will be wondering even more intensely about the question which hung over the conference – how long can May last?
In her address, she spoke about what her government would do in the years ahead. Despite her stated desire to lead the Tories into the next general election, due in 2022, very few people in her party believed she could stay in Downing Street for much longer after March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU. Now even that looks a very long way away.
However bad the headlines are on the speech, May loyalists will argue that the fundamentals have not changed: Tory MPs do not want a leadership election that would become a bloody civil war over what form Brexit should take. So she may yet recover from this latest setback, even though many MPs believe she was already on her “last life” before the speech.
The signs of what her spokesman called her “conference cold” were there in her gruelling round of 28 media interviews since Sunday. What worried her MPs more than the frog in her throat was that May seemed to lack confidence. She was repeatedly asked about why she had not sacked Boris Johnson for his open disloyalty over Brexit.
Ironically for May, her speech would have had much better reviews if it had not been so overshadowed by her delivery. There was at least a serious argument as she said her “mission” was to guarantee the survival of “the British dream” that each generation would be better off than the last. It is not a new argument. Ed Miliband identified it too, calling it the “promise of Britain”. His failure to win the 2015 election is a reminder that there are no prizes for politicians who diagnose problems; the public want to know they have solutions.
May returned to her pledge on her first day as Prime Minister to tackle “burning injustice”. All very well but it begged the question why so little has been done in the past 15 months. Without her policy guru Nick Timothy, who resigned after the June election, she is struggling to put flesh on the ideological bones. But she did revive one of his proposals – a cap on energy prices (shelved since the election) after clamour for a “retail offer.”
This is meant to symbolise May’s commitment to tackling the injustices of the free market system she defended as “the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created” – a big dividing line between her and Jeremy Corbyn. His spectre hung over this conference as the Tories struggled to decide whether to attack or ape him.
May’s pledge for a new generation of council housing is welcome and overdue, though how quickly it will clear the 1.2 million-strong waiting list remains to be seen. She described her approach as “mainstream Conservative” but this, her biggest announcement, was a big-state solution of which Corbyn would be proud (and Labour has long called for). It is further proof that Labour is winning the battle of ideas.
In 37 years of covering their autumn conferences, I have rarely witnessed such a sharp contrast in the mood of the two main parties. While a re-energised Labour Party in Brighton last week convinced itself it is on a march to power, the gloomy Tories are having a crisis of confidence following their June election disaster. One Cabinet minister told me: “Labour behaved as if it had won the election when it lost. We won but are miserable, as if we lost.”
Even before her speech, May did not really enjoy the confidence of her party. She will now enjoy it even less.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies