Theresa May is not the first political leader to try to pitch the idea of a ‘British Dream’ when most British people aren’t even sure if it exists in our culture. Michael Howard spoke about it in 2004, while Ed Miliband adopted the ‘Promise of Britain’ temporarily while he was trying to find his feet as Labour leader. So it’s not just the first time that a party leader has tried to talk about the British Dream, it’s also not the first time a leader whose authority is shaky has tried to talk about it.
As Miliband and Howard showed, the British Dream doesn’t seem to stick as a political idea. It certainly didn’t work as a theme in May’s speech, which turned into one of the unluckiest political nightmares in recent history. First, a ‘comedian’ managed to wave a P45 at the Prime Minister in full view of the cameras. Then, she lost her voice, and croaked her way through passages, resting as the conference hall gave her sympathetic standing ovations. Amber Rudd had to tell Boris Johnson to join in. Then, a letter fell off the conference set so that the words behind her read ‘a country that works or everyone’. Later the ‘E’ fell off, too.
These easy metaphors for a broken woman, a party falling apart and all too easily mocked will be what dominate the coverage of the speech in tonight’s news bulletins and tomorrow’s front pages. It will be what we remember about Theresa May’s speech for years to come.
But what we might not remember – perhaps fortunately for the Prime Minister – is that without all the bad luck, this was a bad speech. It was bad before the ridiculous stunt. It was bad when the Prime Minister didn’t have to worry about whether the words were going to make it out of her mouth.
The British Dream concept was hard enough to sell because it is not a cultural trope in this country in the way it is in the United States. But May did not have a cogent speech in which to sell it. It wandered. It included strangely jarring passages on her sadness about not being able to have children, almost as though the way her personal life has worked out is something the Prime Minister needs to apologise for, and on the death of Alexander Paul, a man who had been repeatedly stopped and searched.
She even had a riff that sounded rather like her equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘the quiet man is turning up the volume’, which what ‘that’s what I’m in this for’. Perhaps it was fortunate that she was interrupted in the middle of this ‘that’s what I’m in this for’ passage by the ‘comedian’, because at least members won’t remember how bad the section was.
Worse, her speech was so much like Ed Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ utterances that it actually copied some of his policies. The Prime Minister announced that the government will publish a draft bill to put price caps on energy bills. Ed Miliband found himself the subject of furious attacks from the Tories when he announced an energy price freeze in 2013. But like Margaret Thatcher claiming one of her greatest achievements was Tony Blair and New Labour, MIliband can now claim one of his strongest legacies was Theresa May and her British Nightmare.