May's Manchester Mishaps

4 Oct 2017

If the Prime Minister thought that her party's conference in Manchester this week was going to be a walk in the park, then she was in for a huge reality check.

 

It was all going to go so well - she was going to unveil some 'YUGE' policies that were really going to win back the young voters in a flash, she was going to show that she was on the side of the people who are just about managing (the JAMs) with a resurrection of her promise on energy price caps, and perhaps most importantly, her team were going to be 100% united on everything from start to finish.

 

One and a half of those things happened... She did resurrect her promise on energy price caps (though whether it shows that she's on the side of the JAMs remains to be seen - only time will tell). She did unveil some vaguely attractive policies for young voters (in this case I'm not convinced that they will win back the young voters in a flash). What certainly did not happen was the third point of this - her plan that the cabinet were going to be 100% united on everything from start to finish.

 

It all started going wrong on Friday night, in truth, with none other than the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. Following his unwelcome intervention two weeks prior in which he wrote a 4,000 piece for the Telegraph on his vision for Brexit (completely upstaging the PM's Florence speech on Brexit), he made another intervention - this time setting out some "red lines" on Brexit, along with some other areas of policy that he'd like changed. 

 

So the questions were asked: is the cabinet really united on Brexit? Is Boris Johnson in line for the sack? These questions were put to her by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning...

 

So the conference began. The rumours continued. There was a theme of growing frustration at Boris' interventions amongst MPs. This wasn't exactly reflected in how the ordinary delegates saw it, as this clip from the BBC Daily Politics shows...

 

 

Theresa May had several (this is an understatement) interviews, in which she stated that she appreciates differences of opinion, and that she does not want a cabinet of "yes men". 

 

This left me pretty perplexed, I've gotta admit...

 

Then, in the evening, Boris Johnson made an error. And it wasn't just a small error, it was a big one. He was speaking at a fringe event, and was discussing Libya. He said that Sirte, which is one of the cities that Daesh had taken control of, was being looked at as the next Dubai... "the only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away".

 

I said this on Twitter last night, I will say it again here. Boris' comments weren't just any harmless joke. It was a joke about dead bodies in a recently war-torn region of the world. Inexcusable and unacceptable from our most senior diplomat.

 

So we move on to today (Wednesday). Damian Green, one of May's closest allies was trotted out for various media interviews, in which he seemed to avoid condemning Boris, and also refused to say whether he should be sacked or not. Indeed after May's key speech - which I will come onto in a minute - Amber Rudd (the Home Secretary) was interviewed by BBC R4's Eddie Mair, in which she too refused to condemn Boris, and also refused to be drawn on whether or not Boris should be sacked. I'm sensing a theme here...

 

That interview that Amber Rudd did with Eddie Mair was actually quite interesting. One of the policy announcements had been that they were going to increase social housing building - except that the Home Secretary didn't know exactly how many extra houses would be built. It was later revealed by May's team that just 25k houses would be built, over 5 years. 

 

Anyway, onto the speech itself....

 

Put simply, it was a disaster. Not because of anything that May did, specifically, but because of the things that happened. A prankster interrupted her to give her a P45 form, claiming it to have been from Boris Johnson. She lost her voice at several points during the speech. And to cap things off, towards the end, the set started to dismantle itself (letters began falling off the slogan behind her).

 

Now I understand completely that none of this is directly her fault. The prankster's intervention was due to a lack of competent security. The cough was down to her having done 26 interviews the day before (I told you that "several" was an understatement). And the letters falling off... who know's what caused that. 

 

But when you make this kind of speech, the chances are that you will want some key messages to get across, and you will want those to be the main points that are discussed. Unfortunately for May, this won't be happening. The headlines are already covering what happened in great detail - far more than they are covering the policy announcements. The rumours are circulating yet again of a leadership challenge, and it is reported that ministers are privately acknowledging that it was a PR nightmare.

 

We have to take into account also the context behind what has happened. If these incidents had happened, for example, to David Cameron two years ago, just after he secured the Conservatives their majority, then I think it could have been forgiven. Unfortunately for Mrs May, this comes after an election result where they scraped a working majority together after perhaps the worst campaign in living memory. 

 

Just like the letters fell off the slogan, I believe that the wheels are now falling off May's leadership. The next few weeks and months could be very rocky... 

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