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
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.
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.
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.