Theresa May speaking on a different occasion, when she didn't have a coughFlickr: Home Office

On the face of it, Theresa May’s party conference speech last week was the culmination of six months of worsening fortune. Between them, a P45, gulps of water, and latterly the part-collapse of the stage set served as an obvious metaphor for the extent of her troubles since losing her majority in the election she never had to call. Even the usually hostile Daily Mirror conceded that she was the ‘unlucky PM’. I’ve worked for the Tories and met Theresa May several times. She is a very agreeable person, but a combination of indecision and bad decisions means this catastrophic speech may – bizarrely – have been her first stroke of luck since she won last year’s leadership election.

The fact that the opportunity the conference had presented – to put the Tories back on track – had thus been missed was first greeted by shock. Doubts in Mrs May’s leadership deepened. Yet the consensus seems to have settled rightly on the fact that anyone can catch a cold. And herein lies her luck: that all it took to shift the narrative to her speech’s presentation and away from its content was one of Philip Hammond’s lozenges, a not-very-comedic comedian and some errant lettering.

For the fact that the slogan behind her lost precisely none of its value when two of its letters dropped off indicted the fact that the policies in her speech, so kindly robbed of the spotlight by the family of frogs that had made their home in her larynx, was at best underwhelming and at worst contradictory. The charade hid the chimera.

“The policy in her speech...was at best underwhelming and at worst contradictory”

More to the point, it was a stark departure from the strong, vote-winning policies of the past. The Conservatives once had a proud record on housing. Tory election posters of the 1950s routinely promised a million houses a year, and Tory governments of the 1950s routinely got on and built them. Theresa May spluttered another figure last week: 25,000 new homes. That increase amounts to roughly 12 extra homes per council per year until 2022, and still leaves the total completed in Britain each year hovering around the lowest figure since the war. One of the planks of the aged and aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s 1964 campaign against Wilson’s resurgent Labour was ‘more houses, better houses’ – a mantra with far less vapidity than anything ‘strong and stable’ – which still saw him roundly thrashed and out of Downing Street. You’d think they’d have learnt by now.

Mrs May often says her guiding mission in politics is to ‘tackle burning injustices’. I wanted to believe her. Thus it was that she bravely turned her fire-fighting on the inferno that is tuition fees, by announcing that she’d keep them just as high as they are already, in a move that the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out ’only reduces the repayments of the highest earning graduates’ and, because of concurrent cuts to university funding, is ’unsustainable in the long run’ anyway. So, in essence, if you’re ‘just about managing’ on tuition fees of £9,250, prepare to ‘just about manage’ for as long as her party won’t get rid of her.


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An announcement of an independent review of the Mental Health Act was far more in line with her ambitions in this regard, but inevitably papers over the cracks of wildly underfunded mental health services in a microcosmic metaphor for the way Mrs May’s rhetoric so often interacts with government policy; making small but visible tweaks in the interests of ‘ordinary working people’, whilst its wider direction does much to erode them. And the announcement of a limited energy price cap, disliked by her party and which’s proposed structure is liable to drive smaller players out of market, seems a similarly wretched sop.

Even having met her in the flesh, I am left with no clear idea as to why she is in politics. Perhaps she won’t be for much longer, but if that most fortuitous of croaks hadn’t put a human face on such sheer insipidness, there’s a very good chance she’d have gone already

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