It was a speech that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
British Prime Minister Theresa May came into the Conservative Party Conference needing to make a memorable impact and she succeeded — but thanks only to her keynote speech descending into sometimes comic disarray.
Continued worry and chaos surrounding Brexit, that has deepened divisions among the Tories, and her disastrous decision to hold an election this summer in which her party lost their majority, meant the British prime minister arrived in Manchester with many openly questioning her position.
And in a speech in which she used the phrase “British dream” numerous times, her time at the lectern was more the stuff of nightmares.
Not only did she suffer from a coughing fit which meant she sometimes struggled to deliver her words, she was also confronted by a prankster who marched to the stage to give her a “P45” — the UK government tax form that is given to someone when they lose their job.
Toward the end of the speech when the audience may have thought that things could not get much worse, the lettering on the set behind her started to fall off.
For Dean Blackburn, lecturer in Modern British History at Nottingham University, the performance only served to underscore the idea that May is on borrowed time.
“She was very unfortunate but that’s only reinforced the idea she’s an unfortunate prime minister and the Tories don’t tolerate unfortunate prime ministers,” Blackburn told Arab News.
“I think she’ll manage to stay as leader until after Christmas but she’ll not be leader come the next election.”
The speech came a day after Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, lurched into his own conference public relations disaster after saying that a war-torn Libyan city only had to “clear the dead bodies away” to become a world-class tourist and business destination.
Viewed as the man most likely to replace May, Johnson had been accused of launching a leadership bid over the past few weeks by making plain his differences with the prime minister on Brexit policy.
To add further insult, some British media outlets showed footage of a sitting foreign secretary at the end of her speech being told to stand up and applaud by a Cabinet colleague.
While many will remember more of the coughs than the words uttered in between, May’s speech focused largely on domestic policy as the Conservatives face a resurgent Labour.
She promised to put a price cap on energy bills and get government back to building public housing, a big issue, especially for the young.
She told EU citizens living in Britain “we want you to stay,” and said that after Brexit, the country would not be one retreating behind borders, but “a global Britain that stands tall in the world.”
Addressing Conservative members, May took responsibility for the election failure, saying “I led the campaign, and I am sorry.”
While keen to shift the focus away from Brexit, there was little getting away from the fact that her time in No.10 will be defined by the departure of Britain from the European Union.
“One of the problems of the conference was that the Tories didn’t know if they were dissecting defeat or celebrating victory, and that ambiguity cast a long shadow over the conference,” said Blackburn. “The Brexit divisions are very visible and if anything getting worse. It’s clear Brexit is casting a long shadow over the party and government.”
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