Theresa May’s keynote address to her annual party conference on the power of the “British dream” descended into a nightmare yesterday when she was overshadowed by a prankster, beset by a persistent cough and part of the stage fell apart.
The Prime Minister struggled to finish her address. She repeatedly stopped to clear her throat and Chancellor Philip Hammond handed her a lozenge. Delegates gave her several lengthy standing ovations to allow her to recover.
By the end of the speech, her message was literally collapsing around her as letters spelling out the Conservative slogan of “Building a country that works for everyone” began dropping off the backdrop behind her.
Mr Brodkin, known by his stage name Lee Nelson, was arrested by Manchester Police for breach of the peace after being ushered from the hall to shouts of “out, out” from delegates. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed that an investigation had been launched.
The speech had been billed as a make or break bid to rescue her premiership. But with her future hanging in the balance last night, Mrs May’s aides and loyal MPs resisted calls for her to go.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson offered a vote of confidence, tweeting after the speech: “If ever the PM needed a metaphor for service and duty and resolution through adversity, that battling performance was it! Huge respect.”
But behind the scenes, MPs have started sounding out the possibility of an imminent leadership challenge.
Mrs May’s appeal to “renew the British dream” was largely lost in the chaotic delivery, but the Prime Minister unveiled two policy announcements designed to show the Conservatives are responding to concerns about generational and economic inequality.
Draft legislation to cap all standard variable energy tariffs will be published within the next two weeks. And the government will increase the budget for social housing in England by £2 billion, with Scotland expected to receive a windfall through the Barnett formula.
Billed as the Prime Minister’s bid to reassert her authority after weeks of division at the top of the government, Mrs May’s speech began on a note of humility, apologising for the dismal general election campaign that saw the Tories lose their majority.
“We did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short,” she said. “It was too scripted, too presidential, and it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change.
“I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.”
Building her speech around the idea of a British dream that ensures “each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future”, Mrs May said that for too many people that aspiration is out of reach.
Labour accused the Prime Minister of watering down its own plans on housing and particularly on the energy cap, which was part of Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto. Jon Trickett, the shadow cabinet office minister said: “This was supposed to be the speech where Theresa May relaunched her flailing premiership but it only confirmed her failure.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the Prime Minister’s performance masked a damaging agenda for Scotland. “Theresa May’s speech – beset with problems and protests – proved the ‘British dream’ is a Tory nightmare,” Mr Blackford said.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable offered sympathy but said Mrs May was “tinkering around the edges” of the UK’s problems.