‘What a mad conference speech this is,’ observed senior SNP MP Pete Wishart as Theresa May addressed Conservative members in Manchester today. It was certainly memorable - but not for the reasons her aides would have hoped. “Gruelling” was the immediate summary by the BBC.
But others were more enthusiastic. Ruth Davidson said she had “huge respect” for her leader. “If ever the PM needed a metaphor for service and duty and resolution through adversity, that battling performance was it,” she tweeted.
The British dream is nothing new
The title of Mrs May’s speech was ‘renewing the British dream’ - but it’s a theme that’s been heard several times before. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband used it during a 2014 conference speech. Rewind 20 years further and Tony Blair spoke of a British dream during his pitch to be Labour leader in 1994.
Sorry isn’t the hardest word
The Conservative leader offered an apology to members for losing the party’s majority at June’s snap election. She admitted the campaign had been “too scripted, too presidential”. This mea culpa appeared to go down well in the conference hall.
Politics can be a cruel game
The PM, obviously suffering from a sore throat, had to pause mid-speech and was handed what looked like a boiled sweet on stage by chancellor Phil Hammond. Her predicament drew sympathy from even Labour MPs. Pat McFadden tweeted: “This is a Leader’s nightmare. No one listening because they are not sure if she will make it to the end. Coughing fit cruel luck.” Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror observed: “Sounds as if May’s dying at the podium, coughing and spluttering. In 30 years of conference speeches I’ve never seen this.”
An eye-catching backdrop
If a coughing fit was not bad enough, the lettering of the stage backdrop began to fall apart mid-speech. What should have read: “Building a country that works for everyone” had become “Building a country that works or everyone” by the close of play. A video of the fatal letter F dropping is likely to be shared for days to come.
May and Trump have at least one thing in common
A besuited man shocked the room when he suddenly stood up and handed Mrs May a P45, later claiming he had been told to do so by Boris Johnson. But it was not a protestor - instead it was another high-profile stunt pulled by comedian Simon Brodkin. The performer was escorted from the venue in handcuffs. He pulled a similar stunt during Donald Trump’s speech at Turnberry in June 2016 when he poured a bag of swastika-emblazoned golf balls at the front of the assembled press.
Red Ed’s vision comes to fruition
Ed Miliband caused a storm among the Tory press in London when he pledged to introduce a cap on energy prices when Labour leader, with many warning of a return to state control and the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s. But Mrs May has since adopted the policy and today pledged to fulfil a manifesto promise by stopping “rip-off energy prices” with a new cap on tariffs. A draft bill will be produced next week that would give Ofgem powers to impose a cap on SVT - single vairable tarrifs - over the whole market. Ofgem are expected to reveal with their plans for how they will safeguard customers on the poorest value tariffs. The Tories say that if their plans do not go far enough, this power will enable them to go further.
Council housing is back
Mrs May also pledged to fulfil another manifesto promise by renewing the building of council and social housing in England and Wales - a process already started in Scotland - by making £2bn available. The Tories say that with a typical subsidy of £80,000, £2bn can supply around 25,000 homes available for social rent. This compares with an additional 6,800 social rent homes delivered in England and Wales in 2015-16.
Unionism is a seller
Mrs May received warm applause when she talked of this “great union” and hailed Britian as an example to the world. She added that the threat of an indyref2 had been “denied” by the Scottish Conservative’s “brilliant” leader Ruth Davidson - one of the few results from the Tories’ dismal election campaign. The PM appears keen to have her Scottish leader by her side.
No new detail on Brexit
EU observers hoping to gain an insight into the UK’s negotiating stance will have been disappointed. The speech repeated promises about a new “deep and special partnership” and reassurances for EU citizens, taking up only 10 paragraphs in total.
Mental health provision to be reviewed
One segment of Mrs May’s speech which will be warmly received by all sides was the promise a new review of how the NHS in England and Wales deals with those suffering mental health problems. Professor Sir Simon Wessely has been asked to review the Mental Health Act with a view to updating the law. While the NHS in Scotland is devolved, Holyrood ministers will follow developments closely.