Theresa May's Conference Speech Was A Disaster

    A major security breach, a deeply unfortunate cough, and a collapsing sign derailed one of the most important speeches of her career.

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    Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images

    Theresa May needed a bold, confident speech to get her leadership back on track at the Conservatives' annual party conference in Manchester.

    Instead she found herself physically struggling to speak due to a constant cough, her speech was interrupted by a former BBC Three comedian handing her a P45 notice, and letters fell off the party's slogan behind her.

    The prime minister was already struggling following a disastrous election result and a party conference that saw panicked MPs obsess over Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected surge in the polls.

    Somehow the speech made it worse, leaving her leadership in an even worse position.

    Afterwards Conservative MPs who oppose May privately told BuzzFeed News the speech had damaged her. However, they said they were unlikely to move against the prime minister and expressed pity: "The party will love her more and she'll be laughed at for it. I really for her and respect her for seeing it through."

    Another pointed out that it would be seen as unfair to move against her after such an unfortunate chain of events.

    There were some announcements in the speech: The government will introduce opt-out organ donation, a policy backed by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. She also announced extra funding for social housing and committed to keeping tuition fees at £9,250 a year.

    There will also be legislation introduced next week to put a cap on energy prices, a policy initially pushed into the mainstream by former Labour leader Ed Miliband in 2013. The exact details remain vague and dependent on a response from the energy regulator Ofgem.

    Unfortunately for the prime minister, the focus is likely to be on the comedian – Simon Brodkin, aka Lee Nelson – who managed to get up to the stage mid-speech and hand May a P45, which she accepted and looked at while onstage. The Conservative party promised a full investigation into how how he was able to get through tight security checks and then get close to the prime minister.

    Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images

    Shortly after the intervention, as Brodkin was led away from the conference venue to be arrested by police for a breach of the peace, she began coughing so heavily there were doubts as to whether she would make it through to the end.

    "The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you," she told party activists as the speech neared its conclusion. "When faced with challenge, if you emerge stronger. When confronted with adversity, if you find the will to live."

    Conservative MPs tried to put a brave face on it.

    Kemi Badenoch, who introduced May to the stage, told BuzzFeed News: "If I had a cold I'd have called in sick and said 'sorry guys, I can't do it'. It just shows the sort of woman she is and her personality – she's a very, very hard worker, she really perseveres, very determined, and she wasn't going to let anything distract her, not the prankster, not the cough or cold. I think she handled it with aplomb."

    Home secretary Amber Rudd added: "It was a hugely powerful speech. She had a cough but I don't think that was the point because she had enormous support in the hall here."

    But the grim faces of Conservative activists leaving the hall told a different story.

    Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

    Although the prime minister used the speech to commit more housing for British public, by the end the letters spelling out the party's slogan – "Building A Country That Works For Everyone" – began to fall off the backdrop.

    By the time she left the stage, having dropped an E, it read "Building A Country That Works Or Everyon". Soon the whole thing began to collapse.

    Hannah Mckay / Reuters

    Afterwards the prime minister's spokesperson insisted the speech went well, considering the circumstances: "We clapped her in, she was happy, we were pleased with the way it went."

    May's advisers suggested the extra funding for housebuilding would result in the construction of approximately 25,000 extra homes by 2021.

    But there wasn't much time for questions from journalists. The speech overran, they had prebooked train tickets, and they didn't want to miss their train. Strangely they didn't seem to keen to stay in Manchester much longer.

    Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Jim Waterson at

    Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Emily Ashton at

    Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Mark Di Stefano at

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