SPLRREUUUCH! Some 20 minutes into her speech, Theresa May had just said her Government would ‘prepare for every eventuality’ on Brexit when she was savaged by a near-terminal lurgy. This was one eventuality Downing Street had not anticipated: the PM, who had been suffering a cold all week, completely lost her gurgle.
She opened her beak and out came the meek whistle of a dented piccolo.
It was a vocal malfunction like no other – utter agony to behold. Wretched, freakish luck. But one’s initial presumption was that it was a political disaster, a tragedy playing out before us. Unfair, yes, but were we witnessing the physical disintegration of her premiership?
That damp-cough ‘splrreuuuch’ was followed by mute huskiness, then a croaky honking. You would get a sweeter sound if someone punctured a Scotsman’s bagpipe.
Noon. Great expectorations: Just 14 minutes after opening her speech, Mrs May struggles with her cold and a nasty hacking cough
12.08. Not funny: Prankster Simon Brodkin interrupts her mid flow to hand over a fake P45, saying: ‘Boris asked me to give you this’ before he is escorted out
12.14. I’ll just go with the flow: The PM shrugs off the incident but as she sips water to ease her cough she spills it over the lectern
12.15. Top-up: A conference official offers a refill for the PM, who – voice cracking – has a coughing fit during the Brexit section of her speech. She tries to laugh off the problem, but can barely get her words out
12.16. Treasury sweetener: After more coughing, Chancellor Philip Hammond steps forward to offer his boss a cough sweet
She quipped to a delighted audience: ‘I hoped you noticed that, the Chancellor giving something away for free’
12.19. This malady’s not for turning: The Tory leader dabs at her nose with a tissue as she determinedly fights the cold she has been suffering with all week
12.20. Helping hand: The audience tries to rescue the PM with long periods of applause so she can sip water and rest her voice. But as they stand for an ovation, Boris Johnson is slow to join in and Home Secretary Amber Rudd orders him to get up
The speech had started pretty well. She had entered looking a bit puffy round the adenoids but, in a blue dress showing a lot of neck, she cut a dramatic, stark figure.
Early paragraphs of the speech included a memorable mea culpa on her bad election campaign – ‘it was too scripted, too presidential’ – and she had admitted that some saw her as an unemotional ‘Ice Maiden’. That was followed by a well-received jest at George Osborne’s expense and a roll of the eyes at his demented attack on her when he said he wanted to chop her up and put her in his freezer.
She talked about her grandmother, who had been a ‘below stairs’ lady’s-maid. Her family’s rise from domestic service to Downing Street had been an example of ‘the British dream’. The theme of the speech, indeed, was intended to be that it was time to renew that dream.
Instead came a sheet-threshing nightmare. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson called for the lion to roar. Yet Mrs May was reduced to a pitiable mew.
12.46. What NOW? As Mrs May’s voice appears to give up, her voice is reduced to a whisper and delegates fear she may have to abandon her speech. Just when it appears things couldn’t get any worse, the slogan ‘Building a country that works for everyone’, loses the letter F, which falls to the floor
12.51. Close to tears: Speech over, husband Philip bounds on stage to give his wife an emotional embrace, telling her: ‘I’m so proud of you’
2.22. Medicine Cabinet: She sends tweet showing remedies including Strepsils throat sweets, Olbas Oil decongestant, Covonia cough medicine and throat spray next to the PM’s red box and speech notes
The first hint of trouble came when she did a riff which explained why she was in politics and she kept saying ‘that’s what I’m in this for’. The first of these came out with a papery rasp. I thought she had done it for dramatic effect. In hindsight, it was probably the start of her vocal collapse.
Then came the intervention of a nitwit prankster who walked up to her (while she was talking about Jeremy Corbyn) and handed her a fake P45. It took the security bods a surprising amount of time to haul him away. Just as well he held nothing more dangerous than a piece of paper, perhaps.
‘The person I want to give a P45 to is Jeremy Corbyn,’ countered Mrs May. Applause from the hall.
The voice conked out a minute or so later. She was giving EU citizens who live in Britain her assurance that they were welcome here. The final part of this passage just faded into vocal nothingness. One moment Radio Berkshire was loud and clear. The next it had disappeared in a tunnel.
Two thousand eyeballs bulged, zeroing in on her as she stood, her engine stalled. Down blazed the hall’s hot lights. She tried gulping water like a carthorse. It did no good. She gave her nose a parp into her hanky, loosened her tubes and had another try.
Stand up and clap, Boris told
Amber Rudd told Boris Johnson to stand up during a standing ovation for the Prime Minister’s conference speech.
Footage showed the Home Secretary looking down at the Foreign Secretary and ordering him to his feet to support Mrs May as she struggled with a persistent cough. He promptly rose and applauded.
After the speech, when asked if she had given Mr Johnson a ticking-off, Miss Rudd grinned, before eventually replying: ‘Boris will always do the right thing.’
She later told LBC that Boris ‘leapt to his feet like the rest of us’. A ally of Mr Johnson said the Cabinet appeared to be applauding to give the PM time to clear her throat and it ‘wasn’t a natural applause moment’.
The incident summed up a week in which close allies of Mrs May have raged at Mr Johnson’s grandstanding, which overshadowed the Tory conference.
It is the latest clash between the pair, who were on opposite sides of the EU referendum campaign. During a TV debate, Miss Rudd said of Mr Johnson: ‘You can’t trust him to take you home at the end of an evening.’
This time the voice made a girlish tremolo, so meek that by comparison Julie Burchill would have sounded like the late Barry White.
Philip Hammond, sitting a few feet away, handed Mrs May a cough sweet. ‘I hope you noticed that,’ she gasped, ‘the Chancellor giving something away for free.’ Under such pressure it was a decent riposte. Still her vocal cords would not co-operate.
The silence seemed to last an age. This was meant to be her vital conference speech, her chance to show the nation and her Cabinet the smack of her command. And she had only just promised that she would give the weak and helpless ‘a voice’!
Backstage her aides, having spent weeks on a speech which on paper looked a fine piece of work, must have been stabbing themselves with their Biros. The conference-goers realised that their Theresa needed some covering fire. They gave her a rolling, standing ovation, the Tory tribe circling round their stricken leader, rallying to her in need. The ovation bought her time to splutter and cough but still the problem persisted.
Nor was this all that went awry. Before the end of the speech, some of the backdrop’s lettering started to fall off its perch. First an F went. Then an E. Shades of that old TV comedy Reggie Perrin in which the factory’s name kept losing letters.
In a Carry On film, this was the point at which the chandeliers would have come crashing down and some ceiling mortar would have lodged itself in Joan Sims’s cleavage. Hardened reporters buried their heads in their hands, unable to watch any more. Disaster? Well, of course. And yet, and yet… for possibly the first time in her political career, Mrs May was not boring. For once, non-political civilians may have looked at her and felt gnawing pity and seen the poor lady as intensely human. And then, perhaps, a little worm of admiration may have started to burrow into their hearts as Mrs May refused to be defeated.
Some of us in the Press seats told each other ‘she’s got to stop, surely’. But that is not Theresa May’s way. Cave in to a lightning-bolt of colic? Never!
Gamely, valiantly, she battled on. The hall sensed her intent and started to get behind her. An activist near me with tattoos and purple hair clenched her fists in and out. People were sitting forward in tension.
Could the old girl make it? Could she complete the last few laps of this 18-page address and, albeit on half an engine, breast the tape? Two pages to go. One page to go. We were in the peroration. Yes! She’d done it!
Let others discuss the speech’s policy content. A sketchwriter’s business is the theatre of politics, the character of its leading figures.
May audiences usually drift into a stultified coma after ten minutes but this became a riveting, epic obstacle course. Heaven knows how, she completed it. Up leapt her husband to the stage, to give her the rib-crushing hug of a lifetime. The audience whooped. The media sat, drained and gob-stoppered.
After such dramas, Brexit should be a cinch.