Theresa May’s attempt to offer voters a “British dream” turned into a nightmare as her biggest speech since the botched election was plagued by mishaps and interruptions.
The Prime Minister pledged a £2 billion boost to council home building and promised a new law to cap energy prices, as part of a drive to help voters who feel they have been “left behind” by an unbalanced economy.
But her address to the Conservative conference in Manchester was undermined by a catalogue of calamities, as she:
:: Was confronted by a stage invader wielding a P45 redundancy notice;
:: Struggled with a persistent cough which repeatedly left her croaking and needing to swig water to be able to carry on;
:: Saw letters fall off the slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” on the backdrop behind her lectern.
Her announcement of draft legislation for a cap on standard variable gas and electricity tariffs left shares in energy companies tumbling on the markets.
She told the conference the energy market was “broken” and that those being “punished” by higher prices were the most loyal customers, often the poor, elderly and less-educated and those in rented homes.
“While we are in favour of free markets, we will always take action to fix them when they are broken,” she said.
“We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back.”
Regulator Ofgem, which has been drawing up its own plans to limit price rises for vulnerable households, welcomed the move and said it was ready to work with Government on plans to “better protect consumers on poor-value deals”.
Number 10 indicated that the cap may not have to be enshrined in law if Ofgem was able to achieve the same outcome in a speedier way.
Additional Government funds made available for bids from councils and housing associations are expected to deliver 25,000 new homes over five years.
Mrs May said she would “take personal charge” of “getting Government back into the business of building houses” and creating “a new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market”.
Downing Street sources insisted that Mrs May was “happy” with how the speech had gone, blaming a “conference cold” and the combined effect of 28 broadcast interviews and 19 receptions for the croaky voice which repeatedly forced her to stop.
After she had finished, she tweeted a photo of a range of throat medications next to a copy of her speech, with the single-word comment “*coughs*”.
Boris Johnson hailed her performance on Twitter as a “great job … putting housing at the heart of renewing the British dream”.
But the Foreign Secretary, who has been accused of undermining the PM by setting out his personal red lines on Brexit, did not merit a mention in her speech.
She instead singled out for praise Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, often tipped as a potential rival for Mr Johnson in the race to succeed her.
Comedian Lee Nelson claimed that Mr Johnson had told him to give Mrs May her P45, as he was bundled away by security and arrested by police to prevent a breach of the peace.
His stunt raised questions about the PM’s security, after it emerged he had attended the conference with legitimate accreditation.
Drawing more deeply than usual on the personal experiences behind her politics, Mrs May held up her grandmother as an example of the “British dream” that each generation will enjoy a more prosperous life than their parents.
The domestic servant who made sacrifices for a better future for her family counted among her grandchildren three professors and a prime minister, said Mrs May.
“I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem, to restoring hope, to renewing the British dream for a new generation of people,” she vowed.
After losing the Conservatives their majority in the Commons in June’s election, Mrs May apologised to delegates for a campaign which was “too scripted, too presidential” and allowed them to be painted as the party of continuity at a time when voters wanted change.
She repeatedly asserted that, following the disastrous result, “we have listened and we have learned” from the message sent by voters.
Mrs May urged Tories to take up the battle with Labour in defence of the free market, which she described as “the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created”.
After a week in which Labour’s poll lead cast a shadow over the Tory gathering, Mrs May took aim at Jeremy Corbyn for wanting to increase borrowing and remove the nuclear deterrent and for letting “anti-Semitism, misogyny and hatred run free”.
And she borrowed the chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” which echoed round Brighton last week to mock the Labour leader by telling the conference: “No Jeremy Corbyn.”