MANCHESTER, England—Theresa May has just given one of the most unfortunate and embarrassing speeches ever delivered by a British prime minister to their annual party conference.
The toe-curling endurance test was interrupted by a comedian’s stunt, a coughing fit, and a sore throat that reduced her voice, at times, to a whisper. While she was speaking, a letter fell from the slogan on the wall behind her—as social media commentators rushed to observe: It was an “‘F’ off” for the Tories.
The unfortunate series of events—which were largely out of her control—came at an awful time for a beleaguered leader who has been derided and diminished by members of her own party at a moment when she is fighting to keep hold of her job.
We don’t know which unnamed party insiders have briefed the newspapers that May’s voice cracked with emotion during a meeting with the queen; that she had to re-apply her makeup after shedding tears on a dismal election night; or that some unhelpful Downing Street colleague suggested drafting in a member of the SAS special forces unit to give her a “pep talk,” but I bet they were men.
“That was very odd,” former Tory Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan told The Daily Beast. “Undoubtedly there are words that are used about women that wouldn’t be used about men, and expectations that are set for women that wouldn’t be set for men.”
Morgan is no ally of May, who sacked her when she took over as leader last year, but that doesn’t mean she can’t see what has been going on here during a gossipy and downcast week in Manchester. “It’s only when mediocre women are selected for parliament that you’ll know they’ve matched the mediocre men,” she said.
There are plenty of mediocre men jostling for a position in a party that is chastened after June’s electoral difficulties and terrified that Jeremy Corbyn will become the most left-wing prime minister in British history at the next election.
All the while, preening Boris Johnson has been deliberately provoking, upsetting, and bullying his way around the conference, believing there was nothing May could do to stand up to him. His speech to the hall ended with a none too subtle plea to “let the lion roar!”
In the bars of Manchester this week, activists and politicians debated who they were more fed up with, May or Johnson.
“Boris is undermining what it is to be a Tory; undermining the prime minister, undermining our ability to negotiate Brexit, and undermining our country. He’s broken Cabinet rules, he’s broken government rules, he’s broken the rules of decency, and he must be fired,” one party insider said.
In the weeks before the conference, which was billed as make or break for May, Johnson set out to undermine her position on Brexit, the biggest British political issue of our time. In a 4,000-word unauthorized manifesto, he laid out the ways in which he would deliver Brexit to appeal to the hardcore Brexiteers who publicly doubt May’s commitment to the cause.
On the day the conference began, he was at it again. Setting out four new “red lines” for the Brexit negotiation with which to threaten his boss. The staggering show of disloyalty came on the prime minister’s birthday.
The Daily Beast asked Johnson if he had a message for his boss on her 61st. He couldn’t muster an answer until an aide chimed in: “Happy Birthday!”
“Yes, yes,” said Johnson stomping on.
Asked if she thought Johnson could behave himself this week, Anna Soubry, an outspoken Conservative Member of Parliament (MP), shook her head and exhaled. “I think everybody needs to remember that this party’s a lot bigger than Boris Johnson,” she said.
Officially, Johnson should have had a rather quiet week. He was scheduled to appear at just one fringe event beyond his official speech as foreign secretary. Despite these apparent efforts to keep a low profile, he was photographed jogging with the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, and then kicked off a trademark diplomatic row at his one appearance at the fringe.
After being asked a rather innocuous question about his recent trip to Libya, Johnson said the civil-war-torn nation was finally returning to good health after Britain, France, and the United States had intervened to help remove Muammar Gaddafi.
“They’ve got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte… into the next Dubai,” he said. “The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then we’ll be there.”
There was an audible gasp in the room and a few nervous laughs. Immediately everyone knew he’d made another gaffe. By the end of Tuesday night, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and some of his own MPs, including Soubry, were calling for him to be fired.
It was “classic Boris” and yet this serial provocateur is allowed to live another day.
The comedian who approached May during her major speech and handed her a 'P45' tax form (which is similar to a U.S. pink slip) claimed that Johnson had put him up to it. This was just part of the joke, but goes to show what a vulnerable position he has forced her into.
Johnson's allure persists for a section of the party who retreated from May in the immediate aftermath of her emotional election night.
While there is a fascination with any report of lachrymosity, May is also accused of being too cold, inauthentic, a robot.
She attempted to address that during her speech. “I’m not the kind of person who wears their heart on their sleeve. And I don’t mind being called things like the Ice Maiden—though perhaps George Osborne took the analogy a little far,” she said.
The mention of Osborne brought the biggest laugh of the day. After being fired by May as chancellor, Osborne quit parliament and took a job as the editor of the London Evening Standard. A profile in Esquire magazine revealed that he had told several of his colleagues at the campaigning newspaper that he would not rest until May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer.” There were differences of opinion over whether or not there was a hint of misogyny in his words.
Talk of tears was re-emerging in the hours after May’s speech on Wednesday, despite no obvious sign that there had been any.
Hillary Clinton points out in her new book What Happened that presidents Obama, Clinton, Reagan, and both Bushes had all been lauded for welling up in public, while she was treated differently on the campaign trail in 2008. “I didn’t even cry, not really,” she wrote. “My eyes glistened for a moment and my voice quavered for about one sentence. That was it. It became the biggest news story in America.”
As much as the portrayal in the media, May’s trouble seems to be coming from inside the party. “[Sexism] has always been there, but I gotta say it would be easier if people showed a bit more loyalty towards her,” veteran Conservative MP Nigel Evans told The Daily Beast. “She doesn’t need cheap gibes from anybody. Every time one of my own party decides to stick the knife into her back, they’re basically sticking the knife into Britain’s back at the same time.”