Theresa has made great progress but has still to strive to reach her full potential. B+. I can imagine that comment in one of her old school reports.
My verdict on Mrs May’s first Conference speech as Prime Minister (from one vicar’s daughter to another) is: ‘You can do better. Good is not good enough.’ And, of course, it all about confidence.
One thing Mrs May could be confident about was that the party faithful in the conference were willing her on. She has executed her first hundred days in office almost faultlessly, stepping into her new Prime Ministerial role with immediate authority. She looked liked a Prime Minister from the first moment. Her decisions have been incisive and clever. Distancing herself from the Cameroons and identifying herself as a meritocrat has proved politically acute.
It has won her media sympathy – despite her grammar school initiative. Tory sceptic Andrew Marr gave her his vote of approval at the end of his interview with her yesterday. ‘That was good,’ he said to her, thinking the sound was cut.
And no wonder, she gave him her most assured and articulate interview to date, handling each question calmly and with dexterity.
So why then the obvious nerves at the start of her speech as she looked round the hall, not once, not twice but a good three times before beginning?
Perhaps, it was only when she stood in front of Conference the full reality hit her. Yes she had made it, Britain’s second woman Prime Minister.
But no one could say she demonstrated the authority of her forbear, let alone the charisma.
‘Today we are gong to talk about Global Britain,’ her second paragraph began. I was hopeful. Almost immediately the speech descended into clunkiness. I know – I am a clunky writing expert. It takes one to see one. The characteristics of this ‘genre’ are too many sub clauses or qualifications and what subeditors call ‘germanicness’, that is leaving the verb to the end of the sentence, writing passively not actively.
I am not saying Mrs May was guilty of all these sins, but without doubt there were too many words delivered in a succession of ‘in which’ clauses for her to get her tongue round them fluently. She did not. She stumbled more than once. It made her seem under rehearsed. And the decision, whoever took it, to dispense with the autocue did not help her. To me at least she seemed to be reading as much as delivering her speech. Please note Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. More media training is in order.
Compare this speech to Mrs Thatcher’s first speech as PM to the Party Conference back in 1979 and you can see which one sparkles and which one doesn’t. Mrs T’s was witty, stylish and clever from the first sentence.
Mrs May by contrast is earnest and, dare I say, boring. Good enough maybe for the party faithful willing her on and prepared to be enraptured by her Brexit means Brexit clichés, but not good enough.
Yes, she delivered a memorable punch line in her withering ‘But come on’ to the politicians who’ve said the referendum isn’t valid and are threatening to challenge any attempt to leave the European Union through the courts. She also pleasingly took the opportunity to put Nicola Sturgeon in her place and show her who’s boss:
… I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.
The lines that preceded this were the best lines of her speech – not least because they were unexpected.
The trouble with the rest of the speech was that it was not unexpected. Her key announcements – a deadline for triggering Article 50 and the Great Repeal Bill had already led the Sunday newspapers. Then Mrs May confirmed them in her interview with Andrew Marr.
She did not commit on the single market issue, giving her now much repeated excuse ‘we cannot reveal our negotiating hand’. This will wear thin unless her play on the words Global Britain starts to mean Global free trade Britain.
Leaving us guessing as to whether hubby Philip would take to the stage to give her a smacker at the end of her speech (which she did on Marr) gave a sign of the verve she can display. She will need it.
David Davis did not need to reprise the memory of Margaret Thatcher. It was in our minds already. But the truth is that Mrs Thatcher is a hard act to follow. And I wonder if it was that comparison that haunted Mrs May as she began her speech. The dutiful vicar’s daughter comparing herself with the grocer’s daughter, so confident that on receiving her school prize aged nine, she had said “I wasn’t lucky, I deserved it”.
I am sure Theresa May does think she deserves to be Prime Minister. And quite right. Yet she did not quite show that confidence yesterday. She needs to.