May’s rallying speech becomes a farce

SHORT FALL::An additional US$2.6bn for public housing has been welcomed, but charities said that 1.2 million households are already on waiting lists in the UK

The Guardian

Fri, Oct 06, 2017 - Page 6

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday sought to relaunch her premiership by offering voters the “British dream,” but the most personal speech of her premiership was overshadowed by a prankster handing her a P45 (British termination of employment form), an incessant cough and problems with the backdrop.

The prime minister attempted to shift the focus from Brexit infighting to domestic policy on energy bills and council housing, but at times struggled to deliver her words as her voice faltered.

After accepting a glass of water and a cough sweet from British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, May plowed on with a conference speech that was designed to set out her credo, but ended with questions about her future.

With the Conservatives already weakened by the loss of a parliamentary majority in June’s snap election, the accident-prone presentation made some in the party question how long the prime minister could carry on.

One member of parliament said colleagues were asking: “Is it going to improve over the next 18 months?” and added: “It’s hard to see how it can.”

The Tories launched an investigation after the comedian Simon Brodkin was successfully accredited and able to hand the prime minister a mocked-up P45, saying that British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson had told him to do it.

He was evicted and subsequently arrested for breach of the peace.

May accepted the form, which stated in the reasons for termination box that she was “neither strong or stable” and “we’re a bit worried about Jezza,” but then quipped that Corbyn was in need of a P45.

As the cameras focused on Brodkin, May’s cough worsened and she began to have difficulty speaking.

At one point the conference floor rose to a standing ovation, their applause intended to help her voice recover, although British Secretary of State for the Home Department Amber Rudd appeared to criticize Johnson for not rising to his feet quickly enough.

Later, the set behind the prime minister, which read, “Building a country that works for everyone,” began to fall apart, with an F and E dropping to the ground while she was still speaking.

Publicly, ministers and members of parliament were understanding of the mishaps.

British Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt joked that it would be “one of the most famous coughs in British history,” but praised May for plowing on.

Johnson tweeted: “Great job by the PM today, putting housing at the heart of the British dream.”

Until May spoke, there had been a broad understanding among Tory members of parliament to give her 18 months to two years in order to see through Brexit.

However, one Tory politician said that the speech — along with her recent declaration that she wanted to fight the next election — had made colleagues wonder whether she could last much longer.

Such were the mishaps that after the speech, Downing Street sources were forced to deny a claim that May had wept into the arms of her husband, Philip May, instead describing her mood as “stoic” as she joined her team for a drink and sandwiches.

The prime minister, who has been dubbed the “Maybot,” had hoped the speech would be an opportunity to reset public opinion about her leadership. She began it with the frank admission that she understood that people did not always find her emotional.

“I’m not the kind of person who wears their heart on their sleeve. And I don’t mind being called things like ‘the ice maiden’ — though perhaps [former British First Secretary of State] George Osborne took the analogy a little far,” she said in reference to comments he made about her being “chopped up in bags” in his freezer.

Talking about the Hillsborough inquiry, tackling injustices of racial inequality, cracking down on stop and search, getting to the truth of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and announcing a review of the Mental Health Act, May repeatedly told delegates, “That’s what I’m in this for.”

She also apologized for losing the Conservative majority in an election campaign that she said was “too scripted, too presidential.”

“I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry,” May said.

The prime minister unveiled two eye-catching policies that aimed to wrest back momentum from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, including a promise to publish draft legislation next week for an energy price cap for families on “rip-off” rates, and a £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) plan to build more council homes.

The energy price cap aims to limit the amount charged to 17 million families on standard variable tariffs. Industry regulator OFGEM had come forward with a watered-down version covering only 2.6 million additional households, but the prime minister indicated that she would introduce legislation if it did not do what she wanted imminently.

The additional money for housing was welcomed by charities such as Shelter, but they said the 25,000 extra properties that would be built over five years fell short when 1.2 million households were already on waiting lists in the UK.

In her speech, May spoke of her grandmother, who was a domestic servant.

“And that servant — that lady’s maid — among her grandchildren boasts three professors and a prime minister,” she said, saying that was why the British dream inspired her.

She also spoke of the National Health Service (NHS) supporting her when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and about her and her husband’s “great sadness” at being unable to have children.

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

May also made a defense of capitalism to contrast her politics with Corbyn’s socialism, which she criticized, echoing Cabinet colleagues, by drawing a comparison with the socialism of Venezuela.

She criticized the newly elected Labour Member of Parliament Laura Pidcock for suggesting that she would not be friends with Conservatives, claiming it was a sign of a problem with politics, and accused Labour of being “riven with the stain of antisemitism,” suggesting it was wrong that BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg needed a bodyguard.

May concluded her speech by demanding an end to party infighting after a week dominated by stories of division and questions of a leadership challenge following interventions on Brexit by Johnson.