The real problem with Theresa May's speech – and it wasn't the cough

The Prime Minister yet again declined an opportunity to salvage her legacy.


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Not with a bang but with a... cough: Theresa May's ill-starred speech has re-ignited speculation about her future.

In case you missed it: the PM endured a series of misfortunes as she lost her voice on numerous occasions during her speech, was handed a P45 by the comedian Lee Nelson, and her "a country that works for everyone" slogan quite literally fell down behind her. It could only have been a better representation of my deepest fears if Nelson had handed her a British History V paper and told her she had three hours to complete it.

"May endures ordeal in speech aimed at reasserting authority" is the FT's splash, while the Guardian goes for "Coughing and spluttering – May's British dream turns into nightmare".  "Last gasp" is the i's take. "The loss of May's voice was a fitting metaphor for the loss of her majority," the New Statesman's George declares, "a moment from which she could never recover".

Even the Brexit papers are less than wholly positive. "Bui ding A C ntry Tha orks" is the Sun's take and they've thrown in a "things can only get letter" pun for good measure. "Luckless May centre stage in tragic farce" is the Telegraph's splash. Frantically looking for a silver lining, the Mail goes for "After this, Brexit will be a cinch!" while the Express opts for "Trust Theresa May's fighting spirit".

Further afield, French daily Libération dubs it a "prolonged nightmare", "Everything went wrong for Lady Brexit" is the verdict of German tabloid Bild.

The Times reports on the ongoing recriminations: "May on final warning after speech shambles" is their splash. One minister says that the row has left her "one crisis from the exit". In most of the parliamentary party, my impression this morning is that most MPs know that getting shot of May because of a heavy cold would make them look even more ridiculous.

As far as the politics around May's continuing survival go, the Conservatives can't use up yet more negotiating time with an internal contest. The transition period will be a good time to have a transition of their own, and despite everything, I don't see how that calculation is going to change in the minds of most Tory MPs.

The bigger, but less reported news from this speech is about May's hopes of being remembered as anything other than a failed Prime Minister, and the hand she leaves her eventual successor, whoever they may be. Both those hinge on the same two questions: can she increase the number of owner-occupiers and decrease the proportion of incomes being swallowed up in rent?

And bluntly, the bigger problem with the speech wasn't the cough, the P45 or the slogan falling apart. It was that on the central issue of housing, she delivered next to nothing as far as increasing the supply goes and inflated demand yet further with a £10bn boost to Help to Buy. As far as solving the housing crisis goes, that's about as effective as fighting a house fire by chucking a few fireworks through the letterbox and arming yourself with a water pistol.


Now listen to Stephen discussing the Conservative Party's future on the NS podcast:

May's reputation throughout what remains of her career is set: a loser and an unlucky one at that. That the speech confirmed that doesn't really matter. What should worry her and her allies more is that she yet again declined an opportunity to ensure that history at least sees her in a somewhat better light.


Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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