Even staunch Brexiteers admit Theresa May did well in her 'personal' speech

Even staunch Brexiteers admit Theresa May did well in her 'personal' speech

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

On Sunday morning many Conservatives were certain this conference would be Theresa May's last as leader. 

In private, Cabinet ministers discussed ousting her. 

In public, many MPs and Tory members were set against her - not least over her controversial Brexit plan.

And Boris Johnson seemed set to cause havoc in Birmingham in an all-out attempt to undermine her.

But by Wednesday afternoon - with some extraordinarily unlikely help from ABBA's Dancing Queen - the narrative had shifted.

Not necessarily changed - and certainly not permanently - but shifted.

And that movement - think of it as the Maybot dance - was all in the Prime Minister's direction. 


'Unusually personal'

James Brokenshire, who was treated for lung cancer earlier this year. Image: Getty

More than anything else, Theresa May's high stakes speech worked because it was unusually personal. 

She revealed her goddaughter had died from cancer. 

She referenced the personal health battle of her housing minister James Brokenshire. 

In short, Theresa May told stories. She revealed something more of herself - an openness which many feel she has struggled to communicate.

Her tone was more mother than headmistress, her style more romantic than robotic.


'A show of unity'

The handpicked audience were always going to put on a show of unity (on the conference fringe, that feigned unity was absent). 

But even Brexiteer sources dead set against the PM are privately admitting her speech was a success.

"She did well," said one MP, "but what she has promised will not deliver free trade."

Another key opponent of the PM on Brexit admitted "I'm not a fan but it went well for her."

Politically, this speech alone will not translate into renewed support for her Brexit plan.

But psychologically, it is a crucial win for Theresa May, because she is about to embark on arguably the most difficult part of the Brexit negotiations yet: the October European Council summit.


'Reasserting centrist Conservativism'

Her experience in the hall this lunchtime will allow her to step on the plane to Brussels with just a little more confidence.

And the PM made this warning:  "our own visions of the perfect Brexit" might result in "no Brexit at all".

On the domestic side, the PM promised "better days ahead", essentially calling an end to austerity. 

This was a One Nation speech intended to reassert a brand of centrist Conservatism.

There were a number of policy rabbits in the speech which will help the Tories answer Labour on the doorstep.

On health, May announced a new cancer strategy designed to increase early detection rates.

And on housing, she scrapped a cap on local authority borrowing which will mean councils could potentially build more social housing.

Analysts and the public will be watching closely to see whether those pledges can be delivered. 


Boris Johnson 'underwhelming'

Watch: Audience reacts to Boris Johnson's speech

Before Theresa May's speech, Conservative Party conference felt somewhat flat.

The 'beauty contest' leadership jockeying of cabinet challengers was relatively restrained.

Many of Mr Johnson's supporters felt his much vaunted speech was underwhelming - he stopped short of twisting the knife.

In the end, it was Theresa May's unusual and unexpectedly impactful speech which provided the spark the gathering had been waiting for. 

And with that, she reasserted herself at the centre of her party - even though she knows many of her own members and MPs do not fully back her.

Today, this enigmatic Prime Minister intrigued. 

Essentially, there must be more of the same if she is to endure the tougher political battles ahead.

And one last thing: it helped that the letters on the backdrop stayed up.