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Theresa May ignores Brexit to focus on domestic agenda

The embattled UK prime minister’s keynote speech in Manchester was overshadowed by a coughing fit and a surprise interruption. Samira Shackle reports.

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Mishaps disrupt British PM May's keynote party speech

Theresa May's address to the party faithful at the annual Conservative Party conference was supposed to be a personal speech, setting out her values and rising above continued speculation about a Conservative leadership contest. Yet it was overshadowed by an interruption from a comedian who handed her a P45 form (which British citizens receive when employment is terminated), a persistent sore throat, and a collapsing set.

May emphasized the"British dream" that "life should be better for the next generation," and said that this was out of reach for too many people. It was designed to relaunch May's rocky premiership, which has been shaken by divisions within her party over Brexit and the shock loss of a majority in June's snap election.

"With her Florence speech [last month's address in Italy in which she outlined her Brexit stance — the ed.] behind her, this was May's big opportunity to refocus the agenda on domestic policy," said Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at the think-tank Demos. "She sought to return to the optimistic and inclusive language she set out on the steps of Downing Street back in the wake of the referendum, and which has been in short supply ever since."

Some observers argue that the heavy emphasis on social justice and meritocracy was at least in part due to the shifting political climate, after Labour's surprise climb in the polls during the June election. "A large proportion of her speech was focused on fighting these burning injustices in society. It seems to me that's the Jeremy Corbyn [Labour party leader — the ed.] effect — he has shifted the debate," says Oliver Patel, research associate at University College London's European Institute.

Read more: Does Labour's Jeremy Corbyn show Germany's SPD a way forward?

Yet this emphasis left her in a peculiar position. "May's speech had a strange dissonance — bashing socialism, but offering interventionist policies to fix the problems of the free market," said Tom Follett, policy manager at the think-tank ResPublica. "At the same time, her answers were not nearly wide and comprehensive enough to tackle the division and difficulty that she described people are facing."

Brexit - what next?

Cartoon effigies of British Tory politicians

Theresa May's speech was extremely short on specifics regarding the next round of Brexit talks

On Tuesday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a motion warning that "sufficient progress has not yet been made" on agreeing a Brexit deal because of a lack of "clear proposals" from Britain. 557 MEPs backed a resolution saying that talks would not proceed to the next stage – discussing future trade – unless there was a "major breakthrough."

Yet on the topic of Brexit, May said only that she was "confident that we will find a deal that works for Britain and Europe." She also reassured European citizens living in the UK that "you are welcome here" and urged negotiators to reach agreement on this policy "because we want you to stay."

"It's clear she wanted to focus on domestic politics like housing, the National Health Service, and tuition fees, but it is peculiar to have such a significant speech and not say anything new about by far the most significant issue facing the country," Patel told DW. "It symbolizes the lack of political vision and leadership that we're getting from the Conservatives on Brexit."

Despite her positive tone, there is growing frustration both within Britain and outside about the lack of progress. "At this pivotal moment in this country's history, far too little time has been spent explaining the plan for how we leave the European Union, or debating how we tackle the long-term challenges that face our economy," said Stephen Martin, director general of the Institute of Directors, a business body.

Holding steady

On policy announcements, the speech was fairly thin on the ground. Housing was a crucial issue, which May acknowledged. But the solutions offered were not on the same scale as the problem; she announced a 2-billion-pound (2.2 billion euros) fund for social housing, but this will amount to just 5,000 new homes a year.

"Overall, May's speech demonstrated the quandary of her government — understanding of dissatisfaction in the country and among young people, aware that the existing system is not working for many — but offering solutions far too incremental to fix the underlying problems," Follett told DW.

Tory slogan with missing letters

A sign of the times for May and her Tory party?

Ahead of time, May's address was billed as crucial for her leadership – a make-or-break moment to silence the internal critics. Yet the speech may ultimately be more remembered for the interruptions than for the content itself. Towards the end of the speech, the letters "F" and "E" fell off a sign, behind May, reading "A Britain That Works For Everyone."

"There is no getting away from the febrile mood that has beset the conference this week in Manchester: an abundance of soul-searching on the need for renewal, but a distinct lack of ideas," said Gaston. "For Downing Street, there was a need to steady the ship, re-calibrate and hold firm in the face of challenges both from outside and within, and in this sense it has been a successful week. But there were no decisive answers to the question of what the future holds for a divided party, and a divided nation."

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