Theresa May walked on stage to the tune of Rhianna’s ‘This Is What You Came For’. The soundtrack bounced - “Lightning strikes every time she moves/And everybody’s watching her” - and a newly confident Tory leader strode forward. She certainly was what they had come for, but little did the audience realise that lightning would strike so constantly, thanks to the P45 protestor and the PM’s racked and ruined voice.
She started so well. Her ‘May-a culpa’ for the snap election was refreshingly candid, admitting the campaign was “too scripted, too Presidential” and finally uttering the words “I am sorry”. The main aim of the speech was to answer the question from the public and her party: why are you still here? And she managed to sketch out a decent response, repeating “that’s what I’m in this for” as she listed tackling child sex abuse, racial discrimination, Hillsborough relatives and mental health services.
Delivering her personal story more effectively than ever before (the granddaughter of a ’lady’s maid”, never being “blessed with children”, her diabetes), she tried to rebuild her own brand, as well as that of her party, having trashed it so spectacularly in the election. And thanks to the P45 protestor, and her coughing nightmare, May in fact displayed a stubborn, dogged sense of duty that her team will hope is a metaphor for her premiership as she leads Britain through Brexit. It seemed apt that while Boris was the cause of the protest, it was Philip Hammond who gave her the cough sweet. And it was Amber Rudd who led the Cabinet ovation to circle the wagons around her, forcing a seated Johnson to get on his feet and defend their leader.
Her policy solutions to Britain’s ills weren’t so much Mayism as Milibandism, pilfering his energy price cap and focus on council house building. It was a mistake to also lift his phrase ‘The British Dream’, and even his line “Britain can do better than this”, but her party may be relieved she is at least addressing voter anger that spilled over at the election.
The speech will of course be remembered for the protest and her vocal failure, yet the sense in the hall among activists was that she’d coped superbly in just keeping going. The contrast with Boris Johnson, the clown prince of the Cabinet who confirmed his status as more comedian than statesman this week, was stark. One minister even declared she showed ‘the Dunkirk spirit’. May found her personal voice just as she lost it. That’s the crumb of comfort she can take away from today. The sympathy among activists was obvious, even though it’s not a great look when a party feels sorry for their own PM.
Yet the real symbolism came when the letters on the slogan behind her - ‘Building A Britain That Works For Everyone’ – began to peel off towards the end of the speech. By the end, a desperate party staffer had to pull the whole thing down. Her MPs will worry that that image of decay and incompetence has set the tone for the next few years.
For a fuller analysis, read our Waugh Zone Special on May’s Conference Speech HERE.