Theresa May's Speech: Coughing Fit, 45 Prank And Faulty Backdrop Eclipsed The Policy

Prank, cough and a faulty backdrop combine for speech nightmare.

Key Announcements from Theresa May’s speech

  • An extra £2billion for affordable housing scheme
  • New energy cap plans to be published next week
  • Announced review of the Mental Health Act
  • Move to Opt Out system for organ donation
  • Began with apology for the election result

Theresa May lost her voice and was handed a P45 by a prankster as she struggled to deliver her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference.

The Prime Minister coughed and spluttered her way through her address to members, who repeatedly gave her long outbreaks of applause so she could get her voice back.

Prankster Simon Brodkin – aka Lee Nelson – managed to get close enough to May to hand her a mock P45 while she was speaking, telling the Prime Minister: “Boris asked me to give this to you.”

Turning to the Foreign Secretary, who was sitting in the front row, he added: “Boris, job done.”

May seemed to deal with the incident well, telling the hall: “I was about to talk about someone I would like to give P45 to - and that’s Jeremy Corbyn.”

The ability of someone to get so close to May during her speech has raised questions about the security around the Prime Minister.

After the incident, May’s voice began to fail her, and she struggled to finish the end of sentences without coughing and clearing her throat.

Philip Hammond eventually gave May a throat sweet, leading May to say: “I hope you noticed that, the Chancellor giving something away for free.”

Even the backdrop to May’s speech started to fall apart, with the first the ‘f’ then other letters dropping from the slogan “Building a country that works for everyone.”

The letters start to fall off Theresa May's conference set
The letters start to fall off Theresa May's conference set
Carl Court via Getty Images

In the conference hall, from the very first croak in her voice, sympathy and support for May was all too tangible.

There was an audible gasp as she drew completely to a halt followed by a spontaneous ovation as the crowd realised they could buy the PM time by keeping on their feet for as long as possible.

It was during the first pause that the Chancellor gave her a cough sweet.

Early on, one party association member leaned to his neighbour and said: “This is a disaster”. But as the scale of the PM’s voice problems became clear, the entire hall rose as one to back her.

May later made a joke about her coughing fit on Twitter:

Comedian Simon Brodkin, also known as Lee Nelson is led out of the Conservative Party Conference hall.
Comedian Simon Brodkin, also known as Lee Nelson is led out of the Conservative Party Conference hall.
Peter Byrne - PA Images via Getty Images

Energy Bills

The gaffes and the Primes Minister’s strangled delivery overshadowed her key policy announcements, including the publication of a draft bill next week which will cap energy bills.

The policy had been part of the Tories’ election manifesto, but after the disappointing result May backtracked on the guarantee, omitting it from the Queen’s Speech and claiming a price review would be left to watchdog Ofgem.

It is thought about 13 million households are on the worst tariff offered by the ‘Big Six’ energy companies, paying on average £1,151 a year - £317 more than the cheapest deal on the market.

May told the conference hall in Manchester: “While we are in favour of free markets, we will always take action to fix them when they are broken.

“We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back, and one of the greatest examples in Britain today is the broken energy market.

“Because the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices and the most the loyal customers are often those with lower incomes, the elderly, people with lower qualifications and people who rent their homes - those who for whatever reason are unable to find the time to shop around.

“That’s why next week this Government will publish a draft Bill to put a price cap on energy bills, meeting our manifesto promise and bringing an end to rip off energy prices once a for all.”

The move was welcomed by bosses at the Big Deal, a dedicated switching site which helps householders find the cheapest rates - but they said the promise must now be honoured.

Co-founder Will Hodson added: “Theresa May backing a price cap is good news for exploited families but she must now deliver. She’s said this before and then backtracked.

“A cap will protect millions of hardworking families from unscrupulous Big Six practices and price rises.

“A shocking eight million households have been on the Big Six’s worst tariff for three years being overcharged hundreds of pounds every year. The fall in British Gas and SSE’s share price shows that people know their days of big profits are numbered.

“But Theresa May said in her manifesto that she’d would deliver a price cap and then watered it down. This time she must deliver.”

The two biggest energy switching sites - uSwitch and MoneySupermarket - branded the proposal “death knell for competition” and a “disaster”.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron accused then-Labour leader Ed Miliband of “wanting to live in a Marxist universe” when Labour promised the same policy during the 2015 general election campaign.


As HuffPost UK revealed yesterday, housing formed a central part of May’s speech.

May said tackling the housing crisis was needed to renew “the British Dream for a new generation of people.”

She said: “For 30 or 40 years we simply haven’t built enough homes.

“Today I can announce that we will invest an additional £2billion in affordable housing – taking the Government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9billion.

“We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level.

“Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market.

“So whether you’re trying to buy your own home, renting privately and looking for more security, or have been waiting for years on a council list, help is on the way.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said more money was needed if the Prime Minister was serious about “tackling the desperate need for social homes at genuinely affordable rents.”

Sh added: “All new money is welcome, but the reality is that with over 1.2 million households on waiting lists already, this is only a fraction of the long-term investment required. It will need to be the start, rather than the end.”


May began her speech by apologising directly to her party for the general election result.

“We did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short,” she said.

“It was too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change.

May added: “I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.”

Mental Health

May used her speech to unveil new measures to tackle the “injustice and stigma” associated with mental health.

She announced professor Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the royal society of medicine, will lead an independent review of the Mental Health Act.

The Prime Minister said addressing mental health issues was a “particular priority” for her and the government.

“There is widespread concern that the existing Mental Health legislation passed more three decades ago is leading to shortfalls in services and is open to misuse,” she said.

“Detention rates under the Mental Health Act are too high. And it is people from black and minority ethnic populations who are affected the most.”

Organ Donations

May also announced a significant change in the organ donation system, highlighting that 500 people died in the UK last year because no suitable donor was found, and there are 6,500 currently on the waiting list.

May said: “To address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system, shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation.”

Security Fears

Greater Manchester Police announced Brodkin had “legitimate accreditation” for the conference, and was released after being arrested to prevent a breach of the peace.

Amber Rudd said the “security breach” was “disappointing”. She told BBC Radio 4: “We will look into that and we will do that at pace”.

Asked what would have happened if the intruder had acid rather than a piece of paper, the Home Secretary said: “Well, he didn’t”.

“I am not going to comment on the ongoing investigation going on around this man,” she said.

A Conservative spokesman said: “In light of the arrest during the Prime Minister’s speech we are working with the police to review the accreditation process and security arrangements for Party Conference.”

Brodkin is known for staging a series of pranks. Under the guise of character Jason Bent, he gate crashed a Fifa press conference and showered outgoing-president Sepp Blatter in dollar bills.

He also invaded the ‘X Factor’ stage during a live show in 2014, joining boyband Stereo Kicks while they performed Michael Jackson’s ‘You Are Not Alone’.


Tory MPs and activists rallied round the Prime Minister after her difficult speech.

Policy chief George Freeman described it as “the most electrifying speech I have ever heard.”

He added: “A woman at an age when most in life would want to put their feet up battling through with incredible personal and physical tenacity.

“Her breaking voice simply heightened her core message that her commitment to this country and to public service and the duty and values of conservatism is what drives her on and I think you could feel in the hall this amazing surge, a groundswell of support for her tenacity in insisting that she will see this through and in her inspiring acknowledgement that she will see it through for the next generation.

“This party at its best is always a party of the future and the next generation and she made that wonderfully clear and in a way the faltering of her voice simply heightened the inspiring commitment.”

“I thought she dealt with the prankster very well, incredibly politely, and I think actually it electrified the speech and it triggered a connection with the audience.

“I think there are pretty serious questions to be asked about someone that is a well-known prankster used by the BBC managed to get that close. He could have been anybody.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said May handled the “distraction” very well.

“It could have been quite scary for her but she dealt with it very well, stabilised, made a few jokes then got back to the speech immediately and obviously she has a cold as well so that was difficult for her,” she said.

“But overall, I thought that she delivered it very well and I thought the reaction actually from the crowd was very good as well.

“There was a lot of love and a lot of respect for their party leader.”

Asked if May’s performance would affect the support the DUP were prepared to offer, Foster added: “No, I don’t think so – quite the reverse actually.”

Jeremy Hunt conceded May had a “pretty tough” time during the speech.

“People up and down the country who have coughs and colds and they struggle on and they go to work and will have sympathised with that a lot,” he told ITV News.

“To do that with the eyes of the nation on you, all those broadcast cameras right there in front of you, is a very tough gig.”

But the Health Secretary said it would be “completely ridiculous” to think voters would judge her because of a cough.

Dan Pitt from Nottingham said May showed “she is human”, adding: “People call her an ice queen or Maybot, it showed she was human. I was really impressed with how she handled the coughing episode.”

Oliver Cooper from Hampstead said: “She did what she always does, what the party does, what the country does, which is persevere through thick and thin. It showed she has resilience, resolve and reserve.”


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