Theresa May’s fluffed speech reopens the matter of her sell-by date

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FOR A prime minister at the peak of her powers, it would have been unfortunate. For one barely clinging to her job, it amounted to almost cosmic levels of bad luck. First, Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester was interrupted by a prankster who was somehow allowed to hand her a P45, a form given to British workers when they get the sack. Then she suffered a coughing fit that not even a lozenge gallantly provided by the chancellor of the exchequer could halt. Finally, letters from the slogan on the wall behind Mrs May began dropping off one by one. Sitcom writers would have thought it a bit much.

After calling an election this spring that stripped the Tories of their majority and cost 30 of her MPs their job, Mrs May already faced a tough gig. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, had spent the previous fortnight trampling government policy with apparent impunity (see article). Now her fluffed speech, which was supposed to reassert her authority, has revived speculation about how long she can last.

Even before the fiasco it was clear that the party was growing tired of its leader and beginning to plan for the future. There were frequently empty seats in the main hall, where ministers made mainly stale speeches. When she could get her words out, Mrs May confusingly combined a defence of the free market with promises of more intervention in higher education, energy and housing. By contrast, packed meetings on the fringes were alive with debate about the hole the party is in, and how it should dig its way out.

Members worried a lot about their party’s make-up, which—as was plain to any visitor—is old and white. Young people were approached with near-anthropological fascination. Fewer than one in four under-30s backed the Tories in the June election. “If it is a cohort effect then the Conservatives are doomed,” Ben Page, a pollster at Ipsos MORI, cheerily reminded delegates. Nearly 30 fringe events on housing show that the party is onto the main cause of young people’s dissatisfaction.

The party has also lost support from ethnic minorities. Sam Gyimah, one of its few black MPs, urged Tories to concentrate on values, such as enterprise and freedom. “You reach out to the Sikh community the same way you reach out to Rotarians,” he said. Others blamed Mrs May’s harsh line on immigration. Yet some of the Tories’ few gains in England in June came in places such as Mansfield and Middlesbrough, with big chunks of white working-class voters. Some 45% of people who voted for the UK Independence Party in 2015 backed the Tories in 2017, according to YouGov. The party has yet to find a way to appeal to both groups.

It is alive to the growing anger about austerity. James Cleverly, a barrel-chested soldier turned MP, recalled meeting a constituent who felt unable to vote Conservative because she was a nurse. “That was all she felt she needed to say,” he reported. When it comes to public finances, Mr Cleverly argued that the Conservatives simply needed to remind voters that Britain’s financial mess was Labour’s fault: “That is their cosmic role in life: to screw things up, so we can come and fix them.” Mrs May doubled down on this theme. She was introduced by a video outlining the economic mess inherited by the Conservatives in 2010. But seven years have passed and such explanations are wearing thin.

Jeremy Corbyn haunted the event. The prime minister, chancellor and foreign secretary referred to Labour’s leader by name 20 times in their speeches, having barely mentioned him at last year’s conference. Yet the Tories still seem unsure how to attack him. Mr Corbyn was variously portrayed as a pantomime villain and a threat to the nation. Members mooed their assent as Mr Johnson laid into “that NATO-bashing, Trident-scrapping, would-be abolisher of the British army”. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, kicked off his speech with a history lesson on Britain in the 1970s and then a whistle-stop tour of countries where socialism has brought misery. Some ministers left the impression that their priority was simply to block Labour, rather than govern. “Keeping Corbyn out seems to me a duty of any sensible politician, particularly a Conservative politician,” said Damian Green, the de facto deputy prime minister, to a three-quarters empty fringe.

Brexit, skated over quickly by Mrs May, created the most excitement among attendees, especially when anyone suggested it would be hard, fast and easy. Yet on this subject more than on any other it is proving difficult to agree on a strategy. The cabinet is publicly split. And the mood of the conference, at which delegates cheered references to Agincourt and Waterloo, suggests that party members will be hostile to any leader who proposes to compromise.

The Tories still have some cause for optimism. Even after weeks of infighting under a powerless prime minister, the party is not far behind Labour in most polls. The next election need not come until 2022. “The popularity of snap elections may have gone down,” noted Mr Green. Following her botched relaunch, Mrs May received public support from colleagues.

Yet few have much enthusiasm for her in private. Tory MPs’ belief that the party is too weak to bear another leadership contest is being tested to the limit. The prime minister sits atop a party that knows it must change everything from its policies to, eventually, its leader. And bad luck has little to do with that.