British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to reassert her dwindling authority was marred on Wednesday (4 October) by a calamitous keynote speech interrupted by repeated coughing fits, a prankster and even letters of her slogan falling off the stage.
May had wanted to use the Conservative Party’s annual conference to bring her divided party together and pitch herself as the only person able to deliver Brexit and keep opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn out of power.
She started by apologizing for her botched bet on a snap June election which stripped her party of its majority in parliament, then pitched a revitalized “British Dream” for which she proposed fixing broken markets and uniting the country.
But her flow was interrupted by British comedian Simon Brodkin (performing under the name Lee Nelson), who handed her a P45 letter, a document given to employees when they leave their job. The document had been “signed” by the comedian using the name of her ambitious Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Prankster Lee Nelson was at it again today this time handing Theresa May a P45 during her cough speech…?pic.twitter.com/kD64eGn9O7
— BenchWarmers ⚽️ (@BeWarmers) October 4, 2017
Then May began a coughing fit and was repeatedly forced to take drinks of water, even coughing into her glass, and was proffered a lozenge from her finance minister, Philip Hammond.
While she was speaking, several letters fell off the slogans behind her on the stage. Some Twitter users seized on images of the missing letters to poke fun at the Conservatives: one said their glue was even failing to hold the party together.
The 61-year-old May won standing ovations for pressing on with the hour-long address, in which she took a more personal tone – saying she did not mind being called the “Ice Maiden” and describing her “great sadness” at not having children.
Her speech sought to offer party activists a renewal of Conservative values while making new promises to a younger generation and those “just about managing”.
“This is a Conservatism I believe in, a Conservatism of fairness and justice and opportunity for all, a Conservatism that keeps the British dream alive for a new generation,” she told the cheering crowd.
“That’s what I‘m in this for,” she said, in a phrase she repeated at least eight times. “That’s what we must all be in this for.”
Many in the audience said her coughing fit and the sudden appearance by the comedian had helped to win them over.
“Actually, if all that stuff hadn’t happened, it would have just been another kind of wooden presentation,” said Pippa Smith, a 26-year-old party member from London. “It was a good speech, but I think actually it did her a favour.”
Brexit minister David Davis told Reuters it had been “a very good speech, it hit all the issues people care about”. Other cabinet ministers also applauded May.
Opponents were less kind.
Labour lawmaker Seema Malhotra said: “It just couldn’t get worse than this. What a disaster. It’s a shambles, not a government.”
Nigel Farage, the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, said May was so useless that if she remained as leader then Labour’s Corbyn would soon be in power.
But there are few obvious successors yet visible beside Johnson, who is unpopular with some Conservative lawmakers. Some activists fear that a divisive leadership contest would pave the way for an election that Corbyn’s Labour could win.
The run-up to May’s speech was again overshadowed by Johnson, who once more dominated the airwaves after stunning some party members at the conference by saying Libya could become a new Dubai if it could “clear the dead bodies away”.