Theresa May’s speech was meant to be the moment she was relaunched as prime minister, shaking off her ice maiden image and showing she had the grit to carry on after the disastrous election in June.
Aides wanted the speech to show the prime minister’s personal sense of duty and her determination to move beyond Brexit to focus on her domestic agenda. But there was no hiding the grim disappointment among No 10 staffers after May’s hour-long speech was torpedoed by three major distractions.
Her messages were carefully crafted by Robbie Gibb, her new communications director, and Gavin Barwell, her new chief of staff, along with a series of modest policy proposals on housing, energy and student fees to appeal to younger voters attracted by Labour. “It was meant to be about showing the country who Theresa really is and what drives her even though she doesn’t really like talking about herself,” said one adviser.
Several personal passages – such as those about her grandmother, who worked as a servant, and her diagnosis with diabetes – were intended to combat her image as a wooden “Maybot” who struggles to relate to people.
The first interruption looked surmountable when a comedian managed to breach security and hand her a fake P45. But things got worse as she succumbed to a hacking cough that continued throughout the speech. The final blow came when several letters fell off a slogan behind her.
A Downing Street source protested that the prime minister was “very happy with it” after the audience gave her multiple standing ovations. He denied she had been in tears, saying she was clapped in by her team and looked her usual stoical self before going for tea and sandwiches afterwards.
Yet her advisers could not suppress their dismay, with one saying: “It was the fact there were several things that went wrong. The whole thing was just really, really unfortunate.”
Cabinet ministers and MPs tried their best to gloss over the glitches and focus on the substance of the speech, but all questions were directed at what went wrong. “Obviously nobody wants to be coughing in the middle of a speech, but she got over it and she showed her resilience,” said Philip Hammond, the chancellor, as he left the main hall.
Andrea Leadsom, her former rival for the leadership and leader of the House of Commons, insisted the prime minister had “handled it incredibly well ... She’s just got a cold, you know, it just shows she is human, she just kept going, it was fantastic.”
Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, who introduced the prime minister, expressed anger at the comedian’s P45 stunt and tried to spin May’s performance as a sign of her “perseverance and determination”.
But in private, colleagues were less complimentary. One MP highlighted the metaphors for a faltering leadership: the loss of her voice and the stage falling apart around her. Another described it as “pretty excruciating”.
There was, however, widespread sympathy for May among party activists, who appeared to appreciate her apology for the election result early in the speech. Molly Samuel, a former Conservative candidate who contested the Walthamstow seat, maintained that May was “her hero … a brilliant leader”.
“The coughing can happen, and it’s happened to me before in hustings. I think the speech showed we are an inclusive party and I’m proud of that in terms of the things she’s done like reforming stop and search,” she said.
“I think people will look at the P45 guy and and think: ‘Who is he?’ And they would have carried on listening to our positive policies and forgotten all about that chap. She is strong, brave, carried on and finished it.”
Another Conservative activist, Adrian Warwick-Haller, 69, said he thought it was a “very brave speech”, adding: “She was making her position much more assured that she’s going to continue. She dealt with the interruption very well, and to keep going when you’ve got a cough like that actually illustrates determination.”
He said he did not think there was any clamour for a new leader “yet” and that May “will go on for some years yet”.
But others were anxious that the speech had not portrayed May as a strong leader. Tony Campion, a 79-year-old delegate, said he thought the prime minister had done very well and the content on racial equality and her personal experiences was “first class”. But he was “a bit concerned at one stage about whether she was going to carry on”.
Asked whether she had done enough to keep her job for a few years, he said: “I’m not sure about that. I thought the problem she had with her voice … I know it was something she had no control over, but it didn’t help to strengthen her image. It’s just a chink in the armour and she can’t afford that because she has a lot of critics and rivals for the leadership.”
But he added: “The best course we can take is to back her fully for as long as she wants to stay the leader.”
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