It was meant to be a unifying speech—but the prime minister struggled to make herself heard

Even aside from the coughing and P45, there was no avoiding the elephant in the room: May has lost all authority

October 04, 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May struggles with a cough as she speaks at the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: PA
Prime Minister Theresa May struggles with a cough as she speaks at the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: PA

What a difference a year makes. At the Conservative Party conference in 2016, Theresa May set out a bold vision for Brexit Britain, taking on the liberal elite and Thatcherite economic orthodoxies in equal measure. May was at the height of her powers leading a seemingly united party while facing a shambolic Labour Party led—if “led” is even the right word—by Jeremy Corbyn, who had recently survived a coup by his own MPs.

Today in Manchester, the prime minister faced her party again, but this time as a shrunken figure. Just as Gordon Brown’s reputation was destroyed by the election-that-never-was in 2007, May’s credibility has been shattered by the election-that-never-should-have-been. An unnecessary poll called to bolster her Commons majority ended up depriving her of any majority at all while transforming Corbyn’s public image. May’s authority has steadily drained away since.

Today, the prime minister struggled to regain the initiative—and “struggled” was the operative word. Her delivery was badly disrupted by a severe cough that continued throughout the speech. It got so bad that the audience began to pity her and seemingly offered long rounds of applause to give her time to recover. It was almost a metaphor for her wider struggles and her diminished powers. At precisely the moment when she needed to convey strength, the ailing prime minister looked anything but. She was then interrupted by a prankster who tried to hand her a ‘P45’ he claimed was from the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Apart from anything else, it was a major security lapse.

As for the substance of the speech, in other circumstances it would have been interesting—even if some of it had already been announced. May continued with the vision of a more caring and interventionist government, insisting that the left does not have a monopoly on compassion. She set out numerous policies that would help what she has previously called “the just-about-managing.” She pointed out how the cost of housing is a major problem for young people in particular and announced an extra £2 billion for affordable housing.

May also signalled “a new generation of council houses,” saying government would get back involved in housing to reignite the dream of home ownership. On student debt, she confirmed that fees would be frozen while a review takes place and the income threshold for repayment by students will rise. Next week, the government will publish plans to cap energy prices to stop companies punishing loyal customers.

But there was no overlooking the elephant in the room: the election result and the prime minister’s consequent loss of authority. May took responsibility, apologising for the underwhelming election outcome and acknowledging that the campaign was “too scripted, too presidential.” In some comments that were trailed in the press overnight, May told her audience, “beyond the gossip pages of the newspapers, and beyond the streets, corridors and meeting rooms of Westminster, life continues—the daily lives of ordinary working people go on.”

She insisted that the government should be focusing on ordinary people and “[n]ot worrying about our job security, but theirs. Not addressing our concerns, but the issues, the problems, the challenges, that concern them. Not focusing on our future, but on the future of their children and their grandchildren.”

As an appeal for unity—and her own job security—it was worthy, rather than inspirational or commanding. May was almost pleading with her party, but she might not have the force of personality or a sufficiently large base of core support in the party to face down her opponents.

It was in stark contrast with Harold Wilson’s response when faced with another round of leadership plots and rumours in 1969. As his biographer, Ben Pimlott, put it, “he gambled his future on a joke.” At a May Day rally, Wilson told an audience of the Labour faithful: “I know what is going on.” As he paused, there was an intake of breath in the room before he declared, “I am going on.” It brought the house down. Wilson was safe.

Just like Wilson, May has big beasts in the cabinet who would like her job. In the past two weeks, Johnson has been testing the bounds of cabinet collective responsibility to breaking point. Ostensibly, he sought to stiffen May’s resolve in the Brexit negotiations but most observers assume he was making a pitch for the leadership.

In normal circumstances, it would be difficult to envisage his behaviour ending in anything other than the sack. Johnson has calculated that May can’t sack him without causing a full-blown leadership crisis in which she would be forced out.

Instead, May sought to soothe fears of backsliding over Brexit, insisting that while she wanted a partnership with the EU, her government would “prepare for every eventuality,” hinting at the possibility of walking away without a deal. Whether her words will be enough to settle the hard-Brexit wing of her party remains to be seen. The overall impression left by this speech was of a prime minister struggling to make herself heard.