The pointlessness of May’s speech
03 October 2018 14:41
One day, when they’re trying to show schoolchildren how weird British politics was in 2018, they’ll screen the footage of Theresa May’s party conference speech. There, before May even got on stage, was the Attorney General, a staunch Leaver called Geoffrey Cox, defending a Brexit Plan concocted by a Prime Minister who, let’s not forget, campaigned for Remain, and which has already basically been rejected by Europe. ‘We need not fear,’ he boomed – but, he didn’t add, we might just need to come up with a different plan.
And then it got weirder still. May didn’t walk on to the stage, as leaders usually do, but awkwardly danced across it, out of sync with the rhythms of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. It was, of course, a reference to her recent attempts at dancing in Kenya, and it was followed by even more references to her Internet-viral past. The opening to her speech featured a joke that encompassed not just her coughing during last year’s speech, but also the collapsing set-dressing.
It was all very sporting and self-deprecating of the Prime Minister. But there’s a point at which sport gives you cramp, and self-deprecation is just self-defeating – and she probably crossed it about half-way to the podium.
And then – smash cut! – she began the speech proper by paying tribute to the participants and victims of the First World War. This was the first structural oddity in a speech full of structural oddities. The whole thing was about half-an-hour too long, and it contained plenty of internal tensions. My favourite (which is to say, the most godawful) came in an extended passage on political unity and cooperation. ‘Conservatives will always stand up for a politics that unites us rather than divides us,’ she said. And then continued: ‘That used to be Labour’s position too.’ Or, if I can paraphrase, ‘We believe in unity, unlike those other bastards.’
After that, May did target her attacks on Labour at a specific part of Labour: Jeremy Corbyn. There were kind mentions for Diane Abbott, Clement Attlee, Jo Cox and others, but no such magnanimity for the Labour leader himself. She quivered with vicious delight when remembering how he responded to the Russian attack in Salisbury. ‘Just one dissenting voice!’
May’s overall strategy was plain to see: she wants to paint her Conservatives as the moderate party to Corbyn’s extreme party. In fact, towards the end of the speech, she straight-up called the Conservatives ‘the moderate, patriotic government this country needs’ – but, it ought to be noted, she stumbled over the word ‘moderate’. There’s a case to be made that large parts of the speech stumbled over the word ‘moderate’.
Consider the speech’s first reference, of only two, to the Windrush Generation. Was it the apology of a moderate government, trying to rush to the centre ground? No, it was the self-aggrandisement of a mad government, trying to big-up its London mayoral candidate. ‘To know… that if your grandparents came to our shores as part of the Windrush generation you could be the next Mayor of London.’
And consider, too, the speech’s talk of immigration and Brexit. There was May saying that ‘our greatest strength of all is the talent and diversity of our people,’ whilst also setting out a border policy that, as we said in a DRUGSTORE CULTURE editorial yesterday, will do very little for either talent or diversity. On Brexit, the only message that she really had for the 48% – although it was just as much for the Leave-skewed crowd in the conference hall – was that there would be no second referendum on her watch.
Worst of all was the sheer pointlessness of much of the speech. May devoted time to telling us that the NHS is a ‘service that is there for everyone’ and that is ‘free at the point of use’. The whole last third felt like a explanation that the Conservative Party is rather in favour of free markets, don’t ya know? British political speeches are rarely stirring, but this was something else. A Wikipedia Speech that felt copied-and-pasted right down to its final sentence: ‘Together, let’s build a better Britain’.
There was one especially significant passage in the text, however: May’s claim that ‘a decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off’. But this could become significant for all the wrong reasons. The Prime Minister is promising to use next year’s Spending Review to create a new fiscal settlement in which ‘debt as a share of the economy will continue to go down, [but] support for public services will go up’. And yet, what happens to this promise if Brexit, or something else, works to sabotage our economy?
If conference-hall applause could make Theresa May the master of her own fate, then the ovation she received today would put her in charge of the Tories for life. But it can’t. Brussels, her backbenchers, her rivals, the economy, the voters… all have a claim on this Prime Minister’s future. She’s dancing into the maelstrom.