From SOS to Dancing Queen, Theresa May says Take a Chance on Chequers

Prime minister sashays onstage in Birmingham, but will she stumble in Brussels?

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May and her husband Philip greet supporters after her speech at the Conservative Party conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May and her husband Philip greet supporters after her speech at the Conservative Party conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters

 

The disaster of her conference speech last year, when she lost her voice, was given a P45 by a prankster and saw the lettering fall off the backdrop behind her, was in everyone’s mind when Theresa May took the stage in Birmingham on Wednesday.

“You’ll have to excuse me if I cough during this speech; I’ve been up all night supergluing the backdrop,” she said after she sashayed to the podium to the sound of Abba’s Dancing Queen.

But May’s speech to the Conservative conference in 2016, her first as leader and also in Birmingham, has cast a longer shadow over her premiership than the comic horror of last year. In that speech, she announced that she would trigger article 50 by March 2017 and outlined the shape of the hard Brexit she would seek in negotiations with the EU.

She offered no new proposals to break the deadlock over the Border backstop

In its most memorable and notorious line, she set the tone of the first phase of her premiership. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means,” she said.

Diversity

May’s tone in Birmingham on Wednesday could not have been more different, celebrating diversity in her cabinet and trumpeting the achievements of the children of immigrants and refugees. Her message on Brexit was different too, making an argument for compromise and telling purists in her party that the perfect Brexit deal is unattainable.

She offered no new proposals to break the deadlock over the Border backstop but identified only one red line on that issue, ruling out a separate customs arrangement for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. In the next week or so, May’s government is expected to present a new proposal which would go a long way towards meeting the demands of Michel Barnier’s “de-dramatised” and less-intrusive backstop.

Divisions

The Conservative conference struggled with two challenges: the party’s divisions over Brexit and its failure to come up with a domestic policy agenda to rival Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing social democracy. Despite her softer tone, May had little to say on domestic policy and her shrill denunciation of Corbynism will not resonate far beyond the Conservative party faithful.

On Brexit, the prime minister did not use the word Chequers once during her speech, presenting her Brexit plan instead as a pragmatic proposal to leave the EU and maintain frictionless trade. Her words were enough to earn her a long standing ovation in Birmingham but over the next few weeks she will face more difficult audiences, in Brussels and on her own backbenches.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.