Ministers defend Theresa May after problems beset keynote speech

Cough-plagued British PM handed P45 by Conservative conference prankster

P45: the comedian Simon Brodkin, aka Lee Nelson, hands Theresa May a fake P45 at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty

P45: the comedian Simon Brodkin, aka Lee Nelson, hands Theresa May a fake P45 at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty

 

British cabinet ministers defended Theresa May on Wednesday after her keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference fell victim to a prankster and persistent coughing fit. Ms May had hoped to use the speech to relaunch her premiership and start winning back voters from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

She apologised for June’s general-election campaign, telling the conference that it was “too scripted, too presidential” and that she accepted responsibility. And she promised to make the housing crisis and the frustrated ambitions of younger people the priority during the rest of her time in office.

“I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem – to restoring hope, to renewing the British dream for a new generation of people. And that means fixing our broken housing market. For 30 or 40 years we simply haven’t built enough homes. As a result prices have risen so much that the average home now costs almost eight times average earnings. And that has been a disaster for young people in particular,” she said.

Ms May promised an extra £2 billion, or €2.3 billion, to build new council homes, but party sources said later that the initiative would mean just 25,000 new homes being built over the next five years. She also promised to cap energy prices, an idea the Conservatives described as Marxist when the former Labour leader Ed Miliband proposed it in 2015.

Brexit no-deal plan

On Brexit, the prime minister restated the position she set out in Florence last month but said her government was preparing for the possibility that there would be no deal with the European Union before the UK left the bloc.

“I believe it is profoundly in all our interests for the negotiations to succeed. But I know that are some are worried whether we are prepared in the event that they do not. It is our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality. And let me reassure everyone in this hall: that is exactly what we are doing.”

Theresa May’s speech: letters begin to fall off the backdrop during the British prime minister’s keynote appearance at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty
Theresa May’s speech: letters begin to fall off the backdrop during the British prime minister’s keynote appearance at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty

Within minutes of the start of her speech she was interrupted by the comedian Simon Brodkin, who handed her a printed P45, saying her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had told him to do so. Mr Brodkin, who uses the stage name Lee Nelson, has carried out a number of high-profile pranks, interrupting a performance by Kanye West and throwing dollar bills over the former Fifa president Sepp Blatter.

Police detained him briefly but released him without charge, as the Conservatives said they were investigating how he had obtained credentials for the conference. “In light of the arrest during the prime minister’s speech we are working with the police to review the accreditation process and security arrangements,” the party said in a statement.

Soon after the prankster’s interruption Ms May had the first of a succession of prolonged coughing fits, which saw her lose her voice a number of times during the speech. Cabinet colleagues led the delegates in a number of standing ovations aimed at giving the prime minister, who had been suffering from a cold throughout the conference, some respite during the coughing fits.

Ms May ended her speech by calling on her ministers to put aside personal ambition to focus on the challenge of dealing with issues she acknowledged would be difficult. “The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you. When faced with challenge, if you emerge stronger. When confronted with adversity, if you find the will to pull through,” she said.

Cabinet colleagues praised the prime minister after the speech, suggesting that the public would admire her determination to carry on despite her cough. The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said in a tweet that she had “huge respect” for Ms May. “If ever the PM needed a metaphor for service and duty and resolution through adversity, that battling performance was it,” she said.