Coughs, splutters and a P45: Stoic Theresa May battles through speech

Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the M

Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May's Conservative Party conference was certainly memorable – but not for the reasons the prime minister had hoped.

Comedian Lee Nelson confronts the prime minister Theresa May during her speech. Picture: OWEN HUMPHR

Comedian Lee Nelson confronts the prime minister Theresa May during her speech. Picture: OWEN HUMPHREYS/PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

This was supposed to be the moment Mrs May rebooted her premiership. The moment she made it clear to her cabinet they had to unite behind her. The moment she took on Jeremy Corbyn and started to win back the voters.

But politics is a cruel world.

The coughs, the splutters and, of course, the P45 have been beamed across the world and will be replayed millions of times. There is every chance this speech will haunt Mrs May.

She had hoped to come across as less robotic in a bid to ditch the Maybot tag by talking of her sadness at not having children and stories of the struggles of her own grandmother.

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Instead her speech was interrupted by prankster Lee Nelson handing her a P45 and from that moment she struggled to stay composed.

But despite the prime minister's difficulties East Anglian MPs rallied around their embattled leader calling her speech 'excellent' and 'moving and deeply inspiring'.

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Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said the whole hall was willing the prime minister on as she found it increasingly difficult to get her words out amid coughing fits.

'This was an electrifying speech,' he said. 'At the beginning the hall was full of doubt and uncertainty. But by the end we rose to our feet in a thunderous wave of respect and genuine applause.

'This was a reversal of the robotic tone of the election campaign. When she spoke about how public service had replaced family in her life it was genuinely moving and deeply inspiring.'

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said: 'Theresa May is an excellent leader and this was a very good speech. I think people understand – we have all had coughs. And I also think they will realise the interruption was just silly. People will see it for what it was.'

Bernard Jenkin, Harwich and North Essex MP, added: 'The PM has set out clear policies to address today's challenges. She also is showing real grit when most would just give up. She deserves Conservative support.'

But others were not as kind. One Tory MP said: 'It was like watching a death. It was awful. I feel sorry for her but really this makes her and therefore all of us look weak and tired. The policy that was in there will get lost now. It's a disaster.'

Her highly personal account of her motivations for entering politics was well received however. Mrs May recalled the history of her own grandmother, who worked as a domestic servant and made sacrifices in the hope of winning a better future for her family.

And she said that, even though she and husband Philip – who was watching on in the audience – had not been able to have children, she too wanted future generations to be able to enjoy better lives than those of their parents, something she described as 'the British dream'.

She won a standing ovation as she said: 'It has always been a great sadness to me and Philip that we were never blessed with children. It seems some things in life are just never meant to be.

'But I believe in the dream that life should be better for the next generation as much as any mother, any father, any grandparent.'

And there was some substance in the speech as well – something that had been lacking during the rest of the conference.

She set out plans for an energy price cap and a major programme of council house building – pledges aimed squarely at Labour voters.

The government will next week publish draft legislation to fulfil the Tory manifesto promise of a limit on energy prices. And an additional £2 billion is to be provided to build 'a new generation of council houses'.

She went on to promise to 'renew the British dream for a new generation of young people' who feel they have been locked out of economic progress.

Mrs May also apologised for running an election campaign earlier this year which was 'too scripted, too presidential' and allowed the Conservatives to be painted as the party of continuity at a time when voters wanted change. And she repeatedly assured delegates that, following the botched poll, 'we have listened and we have learned'.

Conference did not go to plan. Mrs May will get a lot of sympathy – but it is pity she does not want. She struggled to speak at conference but the real struggles have only just begun.

Prime minister will stumble on – for now

Many commentators dubbed this conference, and this speech, 'make or break' for Theresa May.

And the moment prankster Lee Nelson handed Mrs May a P45 could well be remembered as the beginning of the end for the prime minister.

In her defence it was stoic performance as she battled through a cracking voice and rattling cough. At times the tension inside the hall was painful, at other times the whole scene was just deeply uncomfortable.

And to add insult to injury letters began falling from the sign behind the PM as she spoke. It was like a comedy sketch – but no-one was laughing.

For those of us watching on it almost seemed cruel not to go and help her, not to tell her to take five minutes and compose herself. But that would have appeared weak.

But by battling on she won't have silenced the doubters. Her relief at the end was obvious. But does she really have the stomach to go on?

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