Theresa May, who is something of a diffident figure at the best of times, found herself in the odd position yesterday of being feted as the nearest thing to a rock star at the Tory conference.
In the hours after her speech, the home secretary could barely move two paces in the foyer of the Hyatt conference hotel in Birmingham without being stopped by admirers hoping to take a selfie with her.
The home secretary had managed the apparently impossible feat of matching – or even upstaging according to some admirers – Boris Johnson on the main stage of the Tory conference.
A quirk of the conference timetable meant that two of the likely contenders in any future Tory leadership contest made their formal platform speeches in consecutive order, with May up first.
The home secretary’s policy heavy speech, delivered in a serious tone with no jokes, was hailed as one of the finest of her career which will rival her “nasty party” speech in 2002 and her challenge to the Police Federation earlier this year.
Johnson’s populist but loyal speech, peppered with characteristic jokes, was entertaining enough. But it contained no surprises. One senior Tory said: “Theresa’s speech was amazing. She upstaged Bozza. That is quite an achievement. After that speech, George will be thinking she is his main rival.”
May opened with a message that would have been dismissed by some of the older members of the audience as “loony left” had it been delivered at a Labour conference in the 1980s. The home secretary arranged for Alexander Paul, a Warwick university undergraduate student from Brixton, to introduce her with a short speech on the debilitating impact of the abuse of stop and search powers by police on black men.
May, who has been involved in a long battle with David Cameron over the need to curb the use of those powers, welcomed Paul’s “thoughtful and inspiring speech”. She then delivered an uncomfortable message to the conference audience as she asked the Tory audience to imagine the “indignity” of being patted down up to 60 times by the police when you have broken no law.
But then May sprung a second surprise by eschewing the usual approach by a Tory home secretary to make a tub thumping speech hailing the party’s success in tackling crime before touching on all the main policy areas of their portfolio. May instead focused the rest of her speech on one area – the “deadly terrorist threat” posed by Islamic State (Isis) which, she said, was unworthy of the title.
Her speech was not without the odd low political blow as she promised that a Conservative government would try to revive the data communications bill, or “snooper’s charter”, which had been “torpedoed” by the Liberal Democrats. But May made clear that Michael Gove had been wrong to claim that the Home Office is failing to understand the importance of confronting extremists who do not necessarily advocate violence.
She said: “There is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence.”
But the home secretary reached out to Muslims by making clear that the “hateful ideology” of the extremists has nothing to do with Islam and is a threat to all communities as its advocates seek to take Britain to “separation, segregation and sectarianism”. May illustrated her point by quoting from the Koran which said: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
One minister said: “It was a brilliant speech. It was counter-intuitive in the way she opened with stop and search and then quoted from the Koran. These dealt with two of the Conservative party’s existential weaknesses – London and black and minority ethnic voters.”
Johnson, on the other hand, provided nearly 30 minutes of laughter as he mocked David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond. He was proudest of his joke at the expense of the prime minister who was forced to apologise to the Queen after saying that she had “purred down the line” after he informed her that the people of Scotland had rejected independence. “You have permission to purr,” Johnson said as he hailed the result.
One fan of the mayor thought he had done well as he listed his achievements in London and placed a heavy emphasis on housing. The MP said: “This was a grown up, loyal speech that shows Boris has a track record of delivery. Boris has a vision that is optimistic.”
But another Tory thought the London mayor would need to reassess his tactics even though he delivered a speech which was, in his terms, pitch perfect as he said that Miliband’s poor performance at his conference had exploded the “myth that Labour is doomed to succeed”. The MP said: “Is Boris just going to be the court jester?”
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