4 Oct 2017

Theresa May’s speech: a ‘horrible experience’ in the name of duty

“What a psycho drama, really sphincter-tightening,” was how one senior Tory put it to me at the end of Theresa May’s speech.

A prankster managed to hand Theresa May a P45 in the middle of her speech and turn to Boris Johnson saying “job done, Boris.” That moment seems to have exacerbated a tight throat which had been plaguing the Prime Minister all week. What then followed was an extraordinary and excruciating speech which had many people feeling they wanted to look away. The voice kept breaking, the coughing kept coming back, sometimes cracking the voice, sometimes reducing it to a whisper. There were supportive ovations from the activists to give her time to gather herself. But the sore throat came back again and again and again.

At times you wondered if she might abandon the speech. Allies said she deserved credit for soldiering on.

And then, as she approached the end of the speech a letter fell off the backdrop behind her. There was then what sounded like another demonstration just outside the conference hall which sent some cameras rushing out of the hall. It transpired it was howling laughter from the media area where tense producers were watching the set fall apart behind Theresa May.

If the Prime Minister had announced a massive programme of housebuilding it might just have been a distraction. But the housing money announced will, aides said, provide 25,000 new homes between now and 2021. The legislation to impose an energy bill cap which the prime minister announced was, aides exaplained after the speech, legislation that might never happen. If Ofgem can come up with a different plan of its own that satisfies the government’s demands, the legislation may never happen.

You can’t help thinking something else is going on here. I asked some ministers as they left the hall whether they backed an energy bill cap. There have been persistent claims that Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid don’t support the policy.

We may never find out. One source who has worked with Theresa May for quite a long time said “she hasn’t been in a good place in her head” before coming to the Conference. “She will turn round to the team and say ‘it’s over,’ I’m sure she will. They will then try to get her to calm down, have a weekend at home and come back on Monday. She’s the prisoner of a Conservative Party that can’t agree on who comes next.”

Philip May bounded on to the stage at the end of the speech and gave his wife a massive hug and said “You did so brilliantly, you battled through.” That hug seemed to release some bottled up emotion and the Prime Minister teared up. She left the stage signalling her bad throat with a choking gesture.

Theresa May had begun her speech with an apology for the election that went so badly wrong. Her team had wrestled with whether that was right. In the end they seemed it was necessary to win permission to be heard. Folded into the apology, was a thinly veiled attack on what the PM’s team believes was bad advice from Lynton Crosby. They, the argument goes, wanted a “change” campaign; he insisted on a presidential/stability election and misjudged things disastrously. It’s a version of events he appears to dispute so it’s hard to imagine him clapping that section of the speech enthusiastically.

One of the PM’s themes had been the importance of “duty,” a classic ploy by political leaders who hope that by talking about some quality you can own it. Gordon Brown’s first conference speech as prime minister in 2007 saw him make repeated references to “courage” (of firefighters, emergency services etc who had dealt with incidents over the summer). The listener was supposed to come away associating that quality with him. Focus groups suggested to the Tories that Theresa May’s strongest card amongst voters was a sense that she sticks to the job and doesn’t flounce out like some feel David Cameron did after the EU referendum. Her aides will be hoping if not praying that some of that emotion is triggered by the Prime Minister’s horrible experience in Manchester today.

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