Manchester, United Kingdom | AFP | Prime Minister Theresa May urged her party Wednesday to back her to deliver bold change for Britain, but her attempt to move past Brexit splits was marred by a protest, a collapsing set and a coughing fit.
The Conservative leader used her closing speech to the party’s annual conference to call for national unity after the divisive EU vote, and promise reforms including a major new programme of housebuilding.
But May’s address was stopped mid-way when a prankster handed her a P45 — a form given to those leaving a job — claiming he had been sent by rebellious Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
No sooner had she resumed, than May was overtaken by a prolonged coughing fit, which continued on and off throughout the rest of the speech.
To make matters worse, the slogan on the wall behind her — “building a country that works for everyone” — began to collapse, with two letters falling off.
It was a farcical end to a four-day conference in the northwestern city of Manchester which has been marked by a subdued mood, a lack of big policies and lukewarm support for May herself.
“It just couldn’t get worse than this. What a disaster. It’s a shambles, not a government,” tweeted Seema Malhotra, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour party.
But May’s distress appeared to rouse the delegates, who gave her repeated standing ovations — and when she could not speak, urged her on by shouting “Come on, prime minister!”
“Obviously she was having difficulties, but what we saw was her tenacity,” Stephen Kerr, a Scottish member of parliament, told AFP.
“She’s been through so much in the past few months, but she carries on and that’s why we’re behind the prime minister.”
– ‘I am sorry’ –
This year’s conference has been overshadowed by Johnson’s decision to set out his rival vision for Brexit in a newspaper article last month.
The move by a politician known for his leadership ambitions was viewed as an attempt to goad the prime minister, and many saw her failure to sack him as a proof of her weakness.
Four months after the June election, which was called by May but which saw her lose her parliamentary majority, she began Wednesday’s speech with an apology.