Leader comment: Theresa May dances around the big issue – Brexit

Theresa May dances onto the stage ahead of her Conservative party speech (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Theresa May dances onto the stage ahead of her Conservative party speech (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Prime Minister staves off a potential leadership challenge from Boris Johnson with a surprisingly good speech, but offers nothing new on issue of our time, Brexit.

There were many who questioned whether Theresa May was able to actually do it, but yesterday the Prime Minister proved her doubters wrong, finally managing to give a reasonably good speech when it mattered. And it did really matter.

The day before her address to the Conservative conference, Boris Johnson made a blatant attempt to convince the party faithful that she had to go and he was the only person to replace her in Downing Street. Her response yesterday was to paint herself as a One Nation Tory, who could unite the UK and secure a sensible Brexit deal, and her main political opponents – Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – as dangerous extremists.

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Without mentioning his name, she reminded party members of Johnson’s reported response – “f*** business” – to a question about businesses’ concerns over a hard-Brexit. Corbyn, however, was repeatedly name-checked and much of the speech was about condemning the Labour leader as an aberration, “a national tragedy” no less, in his party’s history. The ideological descendants of Barbara Castle and John Smith still sat on the Labour benches in the Commons, but not on the frontbench, she claimed. The amount of time devoted to Corbyn suggested two things: she fears Corbyn is a greater threat than Johnson or she wants party members to believe that; ditch me and you’ll get Corbyn, not Boris.

Her finest moment was when she condemned a “far-left extremist” for “shouting abuse at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children” but also the “racist and misogynist messages” sent to Labour’s Diane Abbott. “You do not have to agree with a word Diane Abbott says to believe passionately in her right to say it, free from threats and abuse,” she said.

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Some of the speech, understandably, was a little overblown. Declaring the imminent end of austerity was bold but may not ring entirely true for many people. However, for them, she offered signs of hope: new technology would not be allowed to “undermine workers’ rights”.

But there was nothing substantive about the issue of our times, Brexit. Some of the rhetoric – “Britain isn’t afraid to leave with no deal if we have to” and “with control of our money, we can spend more on our NHS” – sounded tired.

She may have shored up her position for a while, but in the end perhaps all we really learned was the ‘Dancing Queen’ shouldn’t dance anywhere, ever again.