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New doubts over Theresa May’s future hit Brexit-bound UK

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech was supposed to help her assert her authority and provide new energy but many saw her performance as cringe-worthy.

world Updated: Oct 06, 2017 15:52 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Prime Minister Theresa May,UK politics,Conservative Party
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May struggles with water after she suffered a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on October 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Theresa May’s longevity as prime minister has been much debated since she failed to win a majority for the Conservative Party in the June election, but her “car crash” speech this week at the party conference has renewed speculation at a crucial time of Brexit-related talks.

The speech was supposed to help her assert her authority and help provide new energy and direction, but racked by a failing voice and a cough, she ploughed through the live speech in a way that made for a performance seen as cringe-worthy.

May’s speech was also marred by a comedian — who mid-way handed her a P45 (better known as the letter of termination of employment) — and letters falling off the bold slogan behind her. It attracted much comment from the news media in Europe that is not exactly delighted by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

A member of the audience hands a P45 form (termination of employment tax form) to Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May as she addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on October 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Her aides sought to spin the speech as showing May’s human side, countering the image of her being a “Maybot” who uttered scripted lines and answers during her election campaign. But not many are convinced and knives are already out.

For a party known to be ruthless towards leaders who do not deliver election victories, May has stayed on in Downing Street, but has constantly faced niggles and worse in Westminster about her future. The conference speech in Manchester has only contributed to plots against her, even though she apologised in the speech for the party losing the majority it had.

Even before the conference, May was facing a not-so-veiled threat to her leadership from the ambitious Boris Johnson using the Brexit card. Some wanted him sacked but May did not act, insisting that he and the rest of her cabinet were behind her Brexit plans.

Former Tory chairman Grant Shapps said on Friday that party MPs were “perfectly within their rights” to urge May to resign, while former minister Ed Vaizey said, “I think there will be quite a few people who will now be pretty firmly of the view that she should resign.”

Shapps told the BBC that May was a “perfectly decent person” but had “rolled the dice” and lost over her decision to call a snap election. “The time has come. You can’t just carry on when things aren’t working. The solution is not to bury heads in the sand,” he said.

Britain, he said, was crying out for leadership and the evidence of the last few weeks and months was that “this is not going to happen”. According to him, rebels included five former cabinet ministers.

But Damian Green, first secretary of state and an ally of May, rubbished such talk, calling it “complete nonsense” to suggest that having a cold or having an “unfunny pillock” interrupt her speech meant she was the wrong person for the job.

“I know that she is as determined as ever to get on with her job - she sees it as her duty to do so. She will carry on and she will make a success of this government,” he said.

May’s speech was marked by a remarkable mea culpa on the election results: “Now I called that election. And I know that all of you in this hall – your friends and your families – worked day and night to secure the right result. Because of your hard work we got 2.3 million more votes and achieved our highest vote share in 34 years.

“But we did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short. 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.”

First Published: Oct 06, 2017 15:52 IST