Conservative Party Conference: When it rains it pours

May delivered the most memorable speech of the Party Conference season by far, but for none of the right reasons.

Plagued by an unshakeable cough, the Prime Minister struggled through 15 pages of speech, perhaps buoyed by the misapprehension that she would surely wake up to discover that the whole experience had been an anxiety-ridden nightmare.

Ironically, in struggling through coughing fits, being handed a P45 form mid speech, and standing in front of a party slogan slowly shedding its letters, the Prime Minister was presented in a more human light than at any point in the past. Certainly the applause generated by a sympathetic audience trying to give the Prime Minister time to recover was more heartfelt and genuine than the tepid response she had been receiving when the speech was going to plan.

But, in an unforgiving political world, inspiring sympathy is no substitute for the adoration that Corbyn currently commands among his acolytes.

Having lost her Commons majority in June after calling an election to increase her majority, May has been struggling to assert her authority ever since. Facing almost open rebellion from Boris Johnson and rampant speculation about possible successors, the Conservative Party Conference presented a timely opportunity for May to present a bold new vision for the future of the Party under her leadership and assert some party discipline. Clearly, the spectacular run of unfortunate events put paid to any chance of May doing that but, even without the uniquely challenging circumstances, the speech did not deliver.

In between bouts of coughing and the publicity stunt from comedian Simon Brodkin, Theresa May managed to deliver a conference speech containing some election analysis and some policies. The election analysis was sound; she correctly identified many of the problems with the campaign and even took responsibility and apologised for the result. The policies, however, were somewhat light on the ground.

The vast majority of the speech was rhetorical rather than policy based, focussing on Theresa May’s conception of a “British Dream” – a phrase which incidentally did not resonate with the public for Ed Miliband when he used it in 2014 or for Michael Howard in 2004.

Where there were policies, they suffered from being ideologically at odds with the rhetoric that preceded it. No doubt concerned by the mass appeal of Corbyn’s brand of hard left politics, the Conservative Party has been extolling the virtues of the free market at every given opportunity. But following up a defence of free market capitalism with plans to introduce energy price caps and subsidised housing seems to concede to the Labour narrative that the free market is not working for everyone.

And some of the most heavily trailed policy announcements did not live up to their billing. Housing, for example, was correctly identified as one of the main areas in which the Conservatives could make some headway with young voters. What May offered however was an additional £2bn for social house building – enough to build 5,000 new homes a year, less than 5% of the 250,000 extra homes the Government’s own white paper believes is necessary to satisfy demand. Perhaps more troubling, May also announced an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, a scheme which is only helping to increase that demand.

The only silver lining for May emerging from the Conservative Party Conference is that there is limited appetite to replace her. The disastrous circumstances surrounding the speech give plenty of ammunition to her enemies, some of whom would no doubt genuinely like to see her replaced. But, in this regard, Boris Johnson has unwittingly come to the Prime Minister’s aid by making the prospect that he might become leader less attractive than sticking with the status quo.

You can also read Ranelagh’s snapshot summary of the Conservative Party Conference here.