The Speech That Went Wrong: May Derailed by Protest and CoughBy , , and
Prime minister handed notice to quit in middle of address
Then she struggles to continue through coughing fits
Theresa May’s disastrous year continued to get worse, as the speech intended to get her government back on track descended into chaos.
As the prime minister gave the closing address to her Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester, northwest England, on Wednesday, she was interrupted by a prankster handing her a P45 -- the form British people get when they leave their job. While the man was bundled out by security, May struggled to get back on track, fighting repeated coughing fits. She had said the previous day that she was shaking off a bad throat.
In a final insult, the set behind her began to fall apart, two of the letters spelling out the party’s slogan dropping off the wall as she spoke.
Time and again, May stopped to sip water, then to accept a cough drop from Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond -- “the chancellor giving something away for free,” the prime minister joked. In the hall, delegates willed her to carry on, giving her standing ovations to cover the coughing, When she finished, they roared with relief, as May’s husband Philip bounded on stage and embraced her.
May’s team had hoped it would be the speech that reconnected her with her party and the country after a year in which she lost her parliamentary majority and came close to losing her job.
The prime minister had eye-catching pledges aimed at showing she was in touch with voters’ concerns, chiefly legislation to cap energy prices that sent shares in Centrica Plc, the country’s biggest household electricity and gas supplier, to a 14-year low.
Read more: May’s Energy Cap Bid Falls Flat
A second announcement that she described as “getting government back into the business of building houses” was less impressive, slightly increasing an existing program to provide an extra 25,000 homes for rent.
The immediate response from delegates to May’s woes was sympathy. “It got the whole audience rallying behind her,” Jack Gilmore, 22, said as the audience streamed out of the hall. “Kudos to her for battling through it.”
And members of the cabinet tried to be supportive. “It shows she’s human,” Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom said. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss said the prime minister had “showed her resilience.”
But May’s goal had been to reassert her authority. For a prime minister giving the biggest set-piece speech of the year, “I’m not sure pity is what you want,” said Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University.
The speech came right at the end of a conference that had gone wrong from the start. The prime minister’s team had wanted to move the national conversation on from Brexit and questions about May’s leadership.
Instead, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a perennial potential challenger for her job, gave a newspaper interview in which he set out “red lines” for the sort of Brexit he could accept. That led to daily questions for every senior Tory, including May, about whether he should be fired.
And whatever May’s office had hoped, Brexit was what the delegates wanted to talk about. Fringe meetings on the subject were packed, particularly for speakers who were calling for the fastest, greatest separation from the European Union.
The main hall only filled up for the speeches on Brexit on Tuesday afternoon. And while Johnson’s address, closing that session, was superficially loyal to May, it reminded Tories that he is a man who makes them feel good about themselves, setting a high bar for May to match. The Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper compared Johnson to Winston Churchill.
Even after Johnson had backed down over Brexit, questions about his future continued, with a handful of Tory lawmakers calling on her to dismiss Johnson for comments he made about how part of Libya could be restored to prosperity, once people there were able to “clear away the dead bodies.”
On Wednesday morning, Home Secretary Amber Rudd acknowledged that the conference had started “a little bit flat,” but insisted that the party had “got our mojo back.” That was before May began speaking.
At first, things seemed to be going well. May opened by apologizing to her party for the way she’d run June’s election campaign. “It was too scripted,” she said. “Too presidential. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.”
The prime minister, a shy woman who dislikes talking about her private life, then moved on to a personal section, explaining why for her “the long hours, the pressure, the criticisms and insults that inevitably go with the job” were worth it. She talked about her desire to fight injustice, and then, just as she was moving to attack Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, she was interrupted.
A man in a white shirt and blue tie approached the stage crouching and slowly reached out to May, handing her a piece of paper. On television, edging in at the bottom corner of the screen, it was clearly visible as a P45, the tax form an employer gives a worker when they leave their job. May accepted it, put it on the floor, and began to carry on.
As the interloper, who identified himself to reporters as Simon, was dragged from the conference center by security guards, a scrum of reporters mobbed him, shouting questions. “It was a P45 with love from Boris,” he said. Moments later, comedian Simon Brodkin’s Twitter account showed a photo of him handing May the document.
May tried to carry on, but again and again was unable to stop herself coughing. She had just told the conference she wanted to “give a voice to the voiceless,” and now she found she couldn’t speak.
— With assistance by Jess Shankleman, Tim Ross, Alex Morales, and Svenja O'Donnell