Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s chief speechwriter, once said, “Speeches are more important in politics than talking points, as a rule, and are better remembered.”
Today Theresa May intended to give a keynote speech on her vision of the ‘British Dream’. In reality, it will be remembered as a bit of a nightmare.
If speeches were purely about their content, they would simply be published as written memos. The truth is that speeches are about more than the transcript; they are used to connect, to mobilise, to inspire. We might remember the odd soundbite (Blair’s “Education, education, education”) or parts of the optics (Cameron’s ‘notes-free’ delivery). We also remember how we feel when we watch them – or at least when we catch clips from them on Twitter.
Watching Theresa May’s speech made for a very uncomfortable experience. But, in all fairness, it has to be said: this was not exactly her fault. There was little she could do when a protester handed her a P45. There was even less she could do when she got caught up in fits of coughing. It is October, after all. How party leaders have made it through autumn conference speeches for all these years with so little trace of coughs and sniffles, is beyond me.
Does Theresa May deserve for her speech to be remembered for things so clearly outside her own control? No.
There were some very sensible announcements – an extra £2 billion on new housing, price caps in the broken energy market, and a review into tuition fees.
These were linked to a welcome shift in tone. The idea of the ‘British Dream’ is far too watery and vague to resonate effectively, but the basic sentiment is clear: far too many people – particularly young people – feel caught in an uphill, unfair struggle to get on in life in 21st century Britain.
This admission led to one of the most poignant parts of the speech:
It has always been a great sadness for me and Philip that we were never blessed with children. It seems some things in life are just never meant to be. But I believe in the dream that life should be better for the next generation as much as any mother. Any father. Any grandparent. The only difference is that I have the privileged position of being able to do more than most to bring that dream to life. So I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem – to restoring hope. To renewing the British Dream for a new generation of people.
The big problem, however, is that when Theresa May speaks about dedicating her premiership to this problem, many of us can’t help but wonder whether Mrs May’s premiership will last to the New Year, let alone long enough for this ‘British Dream’ to come to anything.
The elephant in the room today was not Theresa May’s cough. It was and is, fundamentally, that she remains a badly wounded leader. It all comes back to June when she willingly pitched herself as the ‘strong and stable’ candidate for Number 10 during these daunting, uncertain times.
What the election exposed was, of course, anything but strength and stability. Her leadership lacks authority and her party lacks unity, and the challenges facing the country are as daunting as ever.
Just as there’s only so much that one of Philip Hammond’s hard-boiled sweets can do to keep a cough at bay, I’m not sure that a good conference speech could ever have changed underlying realities.
The real reason that we’re so transfixed by the Theresa May’s cough is that it seems to perfectly illustrate a prime minister in power but not in control. And more than that, all the country can do is to sit back and watch.
You can watch the Prime Minister’s speech in full here.
Also published on Medium.