- Theresa May addresses Conservative conference in Manchester. However her speech is overshadowed by a protester handing her p-45 and a recurring cough. May falters during her big moment on stage. Speech shows it is Jeremy Corbyn who is now setting the political agenda.
MANCHESTER – Theresa May rounded off an often chaotic Conservative party conference with a call for the party to unite behind her, end the infighting and plotting, and focus again on the needs of the British people.
However, her speech was overshadowed by a comedian posing as Tory activist handing her a P45 and a recurring cough that she didn’t seem able to shift.
So how does she plan to recover, will it work, and what does May’s speech tell us about the future of the Conservative government?
Here are five things we learned from Theresa May’s speech.
May knows there’s a problem but she doesn’t know the solution
At countless fringe events here in Manchester, delegates have debated the party’s future following May’s botched attempt to win a crushing majority over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. The diagnosis of the problem varied from speaker to speaker. Some blamed the failure to win on Corbyn offering “baubles” such as free tuition fees to young people, while others railed against lefty primary school teachers and the hated anti-Brexit media. And in one bizarre moment, a panelist at an event titled “Is the Intellectual Momentum all with the left” said the current rise of the left had all been prophesied in the plot of the animated film “Captain Underpants”.
But whatever the diagnosis, the overwhelming consensus was that Corbyn and Labour are on the up and the Tories are on the way down. Whereas at previous conferences, any suggestion that Corbyn would become PM were ridiculed, most delegates here now see it as a highly possible, if not likely, outcome at the next general election.
Yet while May’s party now realise they are in trouble, the prime minister does not yet seem to have found a solution. Her speech today did identify housing and living costs as two areas that the government must tackle to win back younger voters and public sector workers. Yet May’s policy proposals, which also included a freeze on tuition fees, are unlikely to be radical enough to trigger a dramatic shift in public opinion about the party.
May risks becoming a figure of pity
— Bloomberg Brexit (@Brexit) October 4, 2017
The prime minister’s speech today was at times difficult to watch as she received a P45 on stage and struggled to overcome a persistent cough. As Gordon Brown discovered before her, once you become a figure of pity your days quickly become numbered. Even worse than ridicule, it’s pity that can really kill a political career.
May has lost control of her party
- Carl Court / Getty
May used her speech to order colleagues to stop obsessing over their own career prospects and get behind her leadership. However, as the events of this week have made all too clear, May has now lost whatever authority she still had left over her party. After a week in which the foreign secretary has unashamedly dominated proceedings, without so much as a single public rebuke, the chances of her call being heeded today looks slim to non-existent. As rallying calls go, May’s speech was like shouting (or indeed coughing) into the wind.
Jeremy Corbyn is setting the agenda
There is a meme popular among Labour-supporting commentators, that Corbyn is in fact already the prime minister. Until this week, it was easy to write this off as mere hubris. However, there is no doubt that the Labour leader has been the abiding presence this week, with talk about how to tackle him dominating fringe events and the chancellor Philip Hammond devoting the vast bulk of his own address to warning of the dangers of a Corbyn government. In one particularly telling moment on Tuesday night, Justice Minister Dominic Raab thanked delegates at a fringe event for coming to “Labour party conference”. Indeed at times this whole conference has very much had the feel of a party in opposition.
This feeling continued into May’s speech today. Whereas when she first became prime minister, May looked set to dominate British politics for years to come, her speech today was a highly reactive attempt to deal with the threat from Labour. Announcements on social housing, tuition fees and the energy freeze could easily have been announced by a Labour opposition. The fact that they have instead been announced by a Conservative government after just months in office, shows the scale of the challenge now facing May’s party.
The battle to replace May is on
“Change is constant and inevitable,” May told her party today as she insisted that she has the plans necessary to take the party into the next general election and beyond. However, for most delegates at this conference, the real change they’re looking towards is the change that will occur when May inevitably stands down. At fringe events and drinks receptions candidates in the potential race to succeed May have been competing to win over the hearts of Conservative activists thinking ahead to life after May. As Business Insider revealed today, one of those contenders is the current Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom. However, the list of Tory hopefuls is long and varied, and almost all of them have made their pitch this week. While most of the attention has focused on Boris Johnson, and to a lesser extent, Jacob Rees-Mogg a growing number of lesser-known figures and younger MPs have been working the conference bars and rooms. May hoped to use her speech today to reassert her authority and set herself up for many more years in Downing Street. The mood at this week’s conference suggests that her hope will almost certainly be dashed.