Theresa May's Big Speech Was the Perfect Metaphor for Her Leadership

The Prime Minister coughed and spluttered her way through a largely uninspiring address.
04 October 2017, 3:06pm
Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. The sign in the background has an F off. (Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images)

Thank fuck that's over. Theresa May's big conference speech was supposed to stamp her authority on the party and spell out a powerful vision – a barnstormer silencing her doubters in the party and laying into Jeremy Corbyn as a danger to the country.

Instead, with her voice creaking, we were left with the bewildering cognitive dissonance of feeling pity for a ruthless ideologue, and also a metaphor for her premiership so obvious that pundits are now left grasping for something original to say.

Throughout, she kept repeating the refrain "renew the British Dream", a reheated phrase from failed Tory leader Michael Howard. And appropriately for her nightmare leadership, this was a speech straight out of a fever dream, where everything that could possibly go wrong did.

She had reached the point in the speech where she was just about to lay into the Labour leader, when whacky TV funnyman Simon Brodkin, AKA Lee Nelson, interrupted her, coming up to the podium and handing her a P45 notice "from Boris". Theresa awkwardly took the piece of paper and missed the obvious opportunity to look quick witted and bad-ass by tearing it up.

From there, it fell apart. May was rattled, and shortly after she started a coughing fit that kept coming back. Then her voice broke and kept fading in and out for the rest of the speech. Chancellor Phil Hammond handed her a lozenge, which didn't work. She croaked like she was possessed by a demon trying to gain access to the human realm – all the that bile built up through years of touting toxic ideology gaining sentience and trying to escape from inside her.

She stumbled and wheezed over key messages in a way that seemed almost an exercise in self-deprecation: "Ten years after northern rock *cough cough* our economy is back on track."

"We have bounced back. We've created record numbers of jobs," she said increasingly quietly, as if someone was slowly turning her volume dial down.

No doubt as I write this someone is splicing all of the coughing together into a soon-to-be viral video montage, but watching the entire thing wasn't funny; it was torture. Around the conference hall, sphincters tightened.

It had been going alright at first, with shades of her first conference speech as leader, last year, in which she successfully duped people into thinking her brand of old-school Toryism was in any way progressive. That's not to say it was actually good. It trailed as a personal speech. And so, master of tear-jerking stories, she dropped in the heartwarming anecdote, "I have early childhood memories of visiting my family GP," without going into any more detail. She matter-of-factly mentioned her type 1 diabetes, and her and her husband's inability to have children as if by rote.

She reeled off a list of socially conscious achievements and ambitions, after each one repeating, "That's what I'm in this for." Never mind that some of these were things she hadn't really done. She claimed to be "in this" for the Hillsborough families "now on the way to seeing justice served", even though it was the families' own efforts that are winning them justice. She talked about the Grenfell Tower fire without apologising for her own miserably slow response to the disaster. She talked about bringing the "outrage" of modern slavery to an end, even though, as VICE revealed, her migration policy is creating the perfect environment for exploitative employers.

This speech was also intended to win over the young. How? May said she would freeze tuition fees while a review of university funding takes place. Ah yes, a lovely review. Of the broken housing market, she promised to "dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem". People will focus on the promise of a new generation of council houses (although these were sort of conflated with "affordable" houses, so wait for the detail), but really the emphasis was on increasing home ownership, because people with mortgages to worry about are more likely to vote Tory.

None of it was hugely inspiring, and none of that information will get through now anyway because her coughing fit is far better headline fodder.

To the extent that she was able to get a message out at all, she was trying to keep two plates spinning. Rhetorically, she was trying to keep the free trade-loving wing of her party happy, but in fact the most consistent theme was that the government should step in to fix broken markets, to regulate and nudge them in the right direction – as opposed to Labour's plans to return key sectors of the economy to public ownership. To use another clunky metaphor, May is offering a lozenge to mask the pain of a country and economy that's wheezing and spluttering.

By the end, the letters from the slogan behind her – "BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE" – started falling off. People behind me – members of the Conservative party faithful – started tittering. We were supposed to come out of this speech analysing the veiled threats to disloyal cabinet members, and looking forward to a halcyon British Dream coming to life. Instead, we got the image of the Tories rallying around the Prime Minster, giving her round after round of pitying applause. May's premiership has always been something monstrous; now, it's just sad.


Funnily enough, we have a politics podcast called The British Dream. Check it out here.