Theresa May’s 2017 Conservative Party speech will not be one she is likely to look back on with fondness. More or less everything that could go wrong did – coughing, protest, the stage falling apart, aides walking onto the stage with glasses of water, the Chancellor popping up with a throat lozenge, a voice giving way – it was all there. Robbie Gibb and Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s two closest aides will have lost several stone with concern and worry. Questions will be asked why she did over twenty media interviews on the day before the speech, why someone who must have been unwell was sent onto the stage armed with a 50 minute speech, why were lozenges and cough medicine not on the lectern – none of it matters. Nothing they could have done or can do now will change what happened. The speech, that moment in history, is now fixed and it is a defining moment in Theresa May’s political career and in the history of the Conservative Party.
What in fact we saw was a very human Theresa May, struggling with circumstance and fate, to deliver an important and substantial speech. A speech in which she embraced fully and openly the strengths and weaknesses of her leadership in the General Election, where she offered important new policy, addressed the concerns of younger voters about Brexit, and set out a purposeful way forward for the Conservative Party and the country.
Of course the speech will be overshadowed by all the other things that went on but what she had to say will stand the test of time, and that matters. We have had too many fast talking sharp suited smoothies in No 10 recently, who have been long on presentation and light on substance. The chaotic circumstances of the speech also enabled us to see something else, the Prime Minister’s spontaneous side. When interrupted by the protestor or coughing, and released from the script, the Prime Minister revealed her sharp sense of humour. It would be good to see more of this side of the Prime Minister.
Theresa May has much more support across the Parliamentary Party and indeed across the party in the country than her critics will own up to. What she now needs to do is to embrace the strength of her position and move swiftly to a wide-ranging reshuffle, a reshuffle that should reach across the Cabinet and right through the government at all levels. The Prime Minister should move to galvanise Whitehall and its Departments with the pace of her policy requirements and implementation demands. She needs to set a blistering pace of reform across government and give her Parliamentary colleagues something to row in behind, and to keep them busy in Parliament. ‘Action this day’ was Winston Churchill’s favoured instruction scrawled across Whitehall memos – it is an order from No 10 government should once again become used to seeing.