'Pranks and coughing fits aside, this was the speech of Theresa May's life'

THE enigmatic Theresa May is a prime minister of paradoxes – even more so after a galvanising party conference speech that was so rudely interrupted by a prankster handing the Tory leader a mock P45 on behalf, he claimed, of one Boris Johnson.

The robotic-like figure who left herself open to ridicule during the election, and who appeared tired and irksome in TV interviews this week, was replaced by the Theresa May who won over her party, and her country, last year.

Theresa May giving her keynote speech in Manchester. PA

And, while many will remember this address for so-called comedian Simon Brodkin’s antics, and then the Prime Minister’s unfortunate coughing fit, Mrs May, frankly, deserves better than this and the serial disloyalty of her Foreign Secretary.

I’ll be honest. I was among those to predict, and welcome, the Prime Minister’s appointment in July last year because of her sincere desire to reach out to all sections of society, though I did caution - repeatedly - about the wisdom of calling a snap election because it contradicted her promise to get on with the job.

I still want Mrs May to succeed – her initial instincts and social justice agenda resonated with the rest of the country – and the Tories will not be forgiven if they plunge the country into another period of political paralysis at this critical juncture.

Yet, at the beginning of the week, I could not see how the Tory leader could survive. Rather than leading, the Prime Minister was being led by a resurgent Labour Party, mutinous Ministers and mischievous media as she appeared to lose control of the One Nation agenda she wanted to set.

Read more: Bernard Ingham: 'This is the speech Theresa May needs to give at the Conservative Party conference'
It can’t go on like this and I believe it potentially changed with the speech of Mrs May’s life. If you concentrate on the content and vision, rather than the sideshows, it provided the Prime Minister with the most important political commodity of all – time – after she reasserted her authority with a personal speech in which she sought to portray herself as a social liberal on the side of the next generation.

The cynics will say the so-called May-bot has simply been rebooted by others who are now at the controls. I disagree. This was a speech written, and delivered, from the heart by a humanitarian who has made it her mission to create a better society and put herself firmly on the side of compassion and aspiration.

Yet, as Mrs May sought to rekindle the British dream and show the humility, and realism, that she so patently failed to show during the election, her duty now is to show the strength – and resolve – that this country has the right to expect of great leaders.

She says it’s never been her style to shirk away from a challenge, to give up and to turn away. If it was, she would surely have done so immediately after the election. Yet she says the test of a leader is how they respond to the toughest of challenges and Mrs May must not misplace the faith that still exists.

First, she needs to clarify, once and for all, the position of Mr Johnson whose recent conduct smacks of disloyalty and a breakdown of collective responsibility. Either the Foreign Secretary is part of the team – or not – because the job of governing should be bigger than any individual.

Second, Mrs May must not allow Brexit negotiations to drift. She made a generous offer to the EU with her recent Florence speech. If her goodwill is not reciprocated, she must show that Britain is prepared to walk away from the European Union. A compelling plan B needs to be put together.

Third, the Tory leader will be only too aware that actions speak louder than words, whether it be her commitment to housing, energy pricing, the Northern Powerhouse or social issues, like mental health, that were previously taboo for the Conservatives.

At a time of limited economic means, a lingering legacy of the global financial crash 10 long years ago, she has to find a way of rewarding hard-pressed public sector workers who have paid the price for the mistakes of others while nurturing the nation’s wealth-creators, risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

It won’t be easy. Labour is changing the dynamics of politics, and elections, with a digital strategy that is emboldening the young and the keyboard warriors; the Tories find themselves bereft of a Commons majority and the public are becoming impatient following seven years of Tory rule that have seen incomes, and services, stagnate.

As such, the test of this speech is not the compassionate response of the Conservative Party when Mrs May’s voice failed her but whether she can improve the country’s living standards while, at the same time, delivering Brexit and making the country’s public services fit for purpose in the 21st century.

If the Tory party do not give Theresa May the chance to do so, and the support that she will need if the wheels of government are to start moving forward and change Britain for the better, it will be forfeiting the right to govern for a generation.

Yet, perversely, if Mrs May retreats into her bunker, and fails to deliver the policies to match her personal philosophy and principles that are refreshingly centrist in their outlook, she, too, won’t deserve the second chance she appears to have been afforded – for now.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk

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