News analysis

Theresa May teetering on edge of political cliff

British PM Theresa May, with a bracelet bearing images of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, holding a sweet passed to her after she was seized by a coughing fit as she addressed her party in Manchester on Wednesday.
British PM Theresa May, with a bracelet bearing images of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, holding a sweet passed to her after she was seized by a coughing fit as she addressed her party in Manchester on Wednesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Mishaps during PM's speech at party meet reinforce her image as luckless leader

British politicians rallied around Prime Minister Theresa May after a keynote speech at her ruling Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester city was plagued by her incessant coughing, as well as other unfortunate mishaps such as falling stage props and the appearance of a prankster.

She has a "lot more to give" to her country, said former Cabinet minister John Redwood, who added that there was a "lot of warmth and support for her".

Still, the speech made her look helpless and accident-prone, and raised further questions about her chances of survival. As Conservative MPs left Manchester yesterday, some argued that her fate is now hanging by a thread.

Yearly party conferences are usually more about theatre than decision-making. Nonetheless, they offer a perfect opportunity for party leaders to reach out well beyond the political bubble of London to show that they enjoy real support with ordinary voters - a leader heralded by party supporters at an annual conference gains some protection from critics.

And more than her immediate predecessors, Mrs May needed to score well this week: Her party is deeply divided over the talks for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. She is also badly wounded by a mishandled June electoral campaign, which started with forecasts of a big majority, but ended with the party losing its overall parliamentary control.

She started her carefully crafted speech this week by taking personal responsibility for the shocking outcome. "I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry."

She also unveiled several policy initiatives which could enhance her party's popularity, including the extension of a scheme to help an estimated 130,000 young families pay the initial deposit on mortgages for their first homes, as well as the allocation of £2 billion (S$3.6 billion) of funds for the construction of affordable homes.

Although Mrs May enjoyed sympathetic applause from the audience, she came across as hapless and vulnerable, precisely the image she sought to dispel. And, unfair as it may be, that may seal her political fate as the performance appeared to reinforce the view that she is a luckless leader incapable of reversing her party's fortunes. Jonathan Eyal

More broadly, she sought to reiterate the theme of her government, which is that it is the Conservative Party rather than the centre-left opposition Labour Party which offers the best opportunities for working people. "My grandmother was a domestic servant. And that servant, that lady's maid - among her grandchildren boasts three professors and a prime minister," she said, presenting her personal life as an example of what she termed the "British Dream" of hard work and self-improvement.

By the standards of party conference speeches, her effort was not bad. Yet it was all lost in a series of disastrous events. She was first taunted by a prankster who presented her with an outsize replica of a P45 form, a document which firms issue to employees they retrench. Then, she was seized by a coughing fit which, at various points, made her delivery painful to watch. And finally letters from the party slogan "Building a Country That Works for Everyone" displayed behind her on stage began falling off.

Mr Nick Timothy, the Prime Minister's former chief of staff turned newspaper columnist, wrote that he "did not think it was possible for lightning to strike the same place three times in an hour". But strike it did, and although Mrs May enjoyed sympathetic applause from the audience, she came across as hapless and vulnerable, precisely the image she sought to dispel. And, unfair as it may be, that may seal her political fate as the performance appeared to reinforce the view that she is a luckless leader incapable of reversing her party's fortunes. Media reports yesterday indicated that as many as 30 Tory MPs were plotting to oust her by Christmas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2017, with the headline 'May teetering on edge of political cliff'. Print Edition | Subscribe