It’s always easy and usually wrong to describe single political speeches as pivotal or decisive. Always remember: almost no-one in the real world watches anything except a few clips on the news the evening the speech is given. The amount of coverage devoted to leaders’ speeches at party conferences is usually excessive, beyond what most of the readership or audience really want or care about.
But this one, this one is different. This really is the crucible, the decisive moment. Theresa May’s premiership turns on how this is seen.
Coughing, stumbling and victim to a brutally effective visual prank by an apparent ‘comedian’, we have seen a British Prime Minister come as close to the brink of public unravelling as we ever have before.
(The only other time I think I’ve ever seen a PM stare into the abyss in this way was in Japan in 2003 when, days after the death of David Kelly, a reporter asked Tony Blair if he had ‘blood on your hands’ – Blair, a man never lost for words or unsure of himself, froze for a second with a look of naked terror before regaining his composure and walking away.)
Regardless of your politics or party (I have none), I defy anyone to watch Theresa May trying to cope with that cough without feeling a squirming sense of awkward sympathy.
Yes, I know: politicians are all volunteers who generally live lives much more comfortable than the people affected by their decisions, but they’re still human beings. Yes, they deserve scrutiny and to be held account for their decisions. But that doesn’t excuse our basic duty of courtesy and compassion towards someone struggling, and goodness knows Theresa May struggled during that speech.
Leaving aside the (generally very good) policy content of the speech, how does this public spectacle play out? What are the politics of the torment of Theresa May? There are two outcomes, very different, and this is why, for once, a conference speech really could be decisive.
One is that people will look at their Prime Minister struggling and spluttering and see a woman soldiering on in the face of adversity, in spite of her own limitations and in the face of numerous obstacles in her path. As I suggested a long time ago, back in June, there is a British fondness for the story of the frail and faulty hero who keeps fighting even when things are bleak.
Could this be the start of the third chapter in Theresa May’s story, where having frittered away her honeymoon and then survived her (self-inflicted) election disaster and the most difficult public ordeal I can remember any Tory politician enduring since IDS’s second conference speech, she shows her true character, her steel and grit, and wins her party and the public back to her leadership? If so, maybe she really could, as her friends have been suggesting, make it all the way to the next general election. This would be her ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech, her ‘lady’s not for turning’ moment.
But then there’s the other way Mrs May’s public ordeal could play. The warm sympathy the Conservative Party showed her today in the hall during her trials is a hair’s breadth away from something very dangerous. Perhaps voters will relate to her very human struggle today, but that could leave them feeling sorry for her, and that could be fatal. There are few things more dangerous to a leader’s authority than pity.