Theresa May’s speech: no “retreat in the face of difficulty”

At the beginning of the week I wrote that most people would be paying even less attention to the party conferences this year than they usually do: with very few exceptions, memorable conference moments are the ones leaders wish had never happened.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, we have just witnessed one of those moments. The security implications aside, the so-called comedian interrupting Theresa May with a P45 at the supposed behest of Boris Johnson was a sideshow. But it was agonising to watch as she struggled to regain her voice; the Tory faithful in the hall and the most cynical reporters were at one in willing her to recover.

This was always going to be a tough occasion for the PM. A reserved individual who dislikes talking about personal matters, she had decided to apologise for the election campaign, reveal some of her family’s history and even speak of her disappointment at not having children. On top of that, there was the pressure to relaunch her premiership by delivering a barnstormer. To have been assailed by an idiot and a debilitating cough must have been shattering. Letters falling off the back of the set felt like the final insult.

Yet it was as though her conclusion had been drafted with perfect foresight of what was to come. “It has never been my style to hide from a challenge, to shrink from a task, to retreat in the face of difficulty, to give up and turn away,” she declared, having just proved exactly that.

For her supporters, other comforting thoughts will come to mind: the episode showed her seriousness and determination, perhaps in contrast to others. It could provide a moment of empathy for those who had not yet felt any personal connection with the PM. And one of the lessons from my years of listening to voters is that things that feel at the time like huge political dramas turn out to matter less in the outside world than the protagonists expect.

But if it might not be the catastrophe it must have seemed, today has not made things any easier. Rightly, the speech tried to move the focus away from Brexit and onto things like education, housing and energy costs that speak directly to voters, and these will now get even less coverage than they otherwise would. To that extent, the conclusion is exactly as it would have been if the speech had been a triumph in every conceivable way: saying these things once is not enough.

But one thing the week needed to do was take a step towards restoring the Conservatives’ reputation for competence. As I also wrote on Sunday, people needed above all to “see a party that looks as though it knows what it’s doing”. On that front, unfortunately, there is a way to go.


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