Theresa May may not have the love of her party. But she has its admiring, horrified sympathy.
If her speech today had been precisely choreographed to act as a metaphor for her premiership, it could not have been more perfect.
A bright, confident start. A sudden disruption (via a “comedian” with a P45). The whole thing plunging off the rails, as May’s voice went from strong and stable to weak and wobbly.
The PM struggling on, even as many in the audience were begging her to stop. Equilibrium just about restored, but still the sense that the whole thing could fall apart at any point. And then – just when she thought she’d got through it, the slogan behind her starting to fall apart.
About the only thing that could have made the parallels more pointed – save for the entire set collapsing around her – would have been Boris Johnson bounding on stage to complete the address.
“The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you,” said May in her peroration. And this, through no fault of her own, was as tough as it gets.
Yet beyond the car-crash spectacle, the speech was also the perfect metaphor for the May premiership in a wider sense.
In the face of the Corbyn terror, the Prime Minister has abandoned her earlier disdain for the free market. She spoke of it today as “the greatest agent of human progress ever created”, claiming it had “inspired 70 years of prosperity, raising living standards for hundreds of millions of people right across the globe”. She said she wanted to make Britain “the world’s leading advocate for free markets and free trade” – and even mentioned that she quite liked low taxes.
But if this aspect of the speech was intended to appease traditional Tories, she also doubled down on her commitment to “Mayism”. Yes, the repeated talk of the “British Dream” had echoes of Michael Howard – and sounded just as awkward as it did then. But there were also sections on racial injustice, stop and search, praise for the NHS and public sector workers, and a moving passage on May’s own family journey from domestic servitude to No 10.
Tellingly, the praise for free markets was directly followed by a promise – censored in the advance copy of the speech delivered to journalists – to impose an energy price cap. Which raises a question: how exactly can Jeremy Corbyn’s rent controls be convincingly condemned as a socialist atrocity, if Theresa May is doing exactly the same thing in the energy markets?
Yet the most important – and emblematic – thing about May’s speech was not the policies that were in it, but those that were led out.
As she did on entering Downing Street, the PM set out the challenges facing the nation in ringing terms, promising to devote her premiership to giving young people the houses they need and deserve. Bravo.
But how will she do this? The policies unveiled amount to putting extra money into the Help to Buy scheme – which serves largely to help the few while inflating prices for the many. Then there was the announcement of £2 billion extra for affordable housing, spread over five years. But that, by the Government’s own figures, delivers 25,000 more homes – a pitiful fraction of what we need. And it still only brings back investment in the sector to roughly the level in 2010, before George Osborne swung his axe.
It was, in other words, classic May. The language on the challenges we face was excellent. But where were the policies to match? In my alternative conference speech this morning, I tried to set out what they might look like – but instead, May reached for the peashooter rather than the blunderbuss.
On housing, for instance, the plan seems to be to squeeze a few more houses out of the existing system – rather than accepting that the system itself is the problem, starting with our ossified and economically catastrophic planning laws.
So where does all of this leave us? The great irony of this conference season is that, for all its febrile intensity – and for all today’s excruciating, watch-through-the-fingers drama – British politics is left in pretty much the same place as it was beforehand.
Theresa May reminded the Tory party that she can – vocal cords permitting – deliver a decently prime ministerial speech. Her bravery in soldiering on with it will certainly win the party faithful’s approval.
Meanwhile, the experience of sitting in the hall over the past few days, or watching ministers on television, has reminded everyone of what they already knew: there are no obvious upgrades waiting in the wings.
Amber Rudd may be marginally more human than May, but feels like she is cut from similar cloth: it would be swapping the headmistress for the head girl.
In the light of day, Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday was far from spectacular (the giddy reaction of The Daily Telegraph aside). But the reason I and others received it so positively was that Boris’s charisma, optimism and verve stood in such stark contrast to his colleagues’. Among the press corps, those who sat through the full horror of Philip Hammond’s speech have actually formed something of a support group.
The one major Tory figure to raise their profile, and their game, was Ruth Davidson. Both on the stage, and in a series of fringe meetings, her warmth and humanity stood out. The party would have her in a heartbeat – but alas, it can’t get her. Instead, she stands as a nagging reproof to her English colleagues, an awkward reminder of what they need but cannot have.
Which, as I said, leaves us pretty much where we were.
A Prime Minister who has identified the country’s domestic problems, but lacks anything resembling the policies to fix them. Who needs to deliver Brexit, while simultaneously placating both the free-trading and safety-first wings of her Cabinet and party.
A Conservative Party that is flailing to connect with younger voters, but just keeps getting it wrong (just read this from Jim Waterson of BuzzFeed on its ham-fisted social media strategy). An activist base that is grudgingly putting up with the status quo, because it knows the alternative is Corbyn’s Labour.
The situation is far from terminal. Anyone who saw Kemi Badenoch, the new MP for Saffron Walden, introducing Theresa May will enthusiastically agree that she is a star of the future – and there are other young Tories with similar talent and enthusiasm. (I’m even tempted to predict that Kemi, not Boris, is the former Spectator employee to back in the race for No 10 – but it still feels that BoJo is the natural heir should May call it quits.)
The word “snafu” is often used to describe anything that goes catastrophically wrong – like Theresa May’s speech today, albeit through no fault of her own.
But the term has its origins as a rather wonderful military acronym: “Situation Normal – All F***ed Up.”
And that, after this conference season, is where both Britain and the Conservative Party find themselves once again. Situation normal. All f***ed up.