Theresa May said she wanted to offer voters the “British dream” but the most personal speech of her premiership was overshadowed by a prankster handing her a P45, an incessant cough and a stage malfunction.
The prime minister attempted to shift the focus from Brexit infighting to domestic policy on energy bills and council housing at the end of her party’s annual conference, but at times struggled to deliver her words as her voice faltered.
Accepting a glass of water and cough sweet from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, May tried to relaunch her premiership with her vision for society, repeatedly telling delegates “that’s what I’m in this for”.
She also apologised for losing the Conservative majority in an election campaign that was “too scripted, too presidential”, saying: “I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.”
May offered delegates, who kept prolonging their applause in sympathy to help her voice to recover, a number of new policies as she:
Accused the energy market of punishing loyalty with higher bills and promised to introduce draft legislation next week for an energy price cap covering 17 million families on standard variable “rip-off” rates. The legislation, which will be enacted if Ofgem fails to act, caused the share prices of Centrica and SSE to immediately fall.
Promised to invest an additional £2bn in affordable housing, and get “the government back into the business of building houses” with a new generation of council homes, saying she would “dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem”. But critics said 25,000 additional homes in five years fell well short of what was needed.
Announced an independent review of the Mental Health Act by Prof Simon Wessely.
The speech was designed to relaunch her 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.
However, it is likely to be remembered for the interruptions. The Conservative party has launched an investigation after comedian, Simon Brodkin, handed the prime minister a mocked up P45 and said to her: “Boris told me to do it.” He was evicted and subsequently arrested for breach of the peace.
May accepted the form, which gave reasons for termination that she was “neither strong or stable… we’re a bit worried about Jezza”, but then quipped that Corbyn was in need of a P45.
Later, the set behind the prime minister, which said: “Building a country that works for everyone”, broke, with an F and E falling to the ground.
“I’m not the kind of person who wears their heart on their sleeve. And I don’t mind being called things like the ice maiden – though perhaps George Osborne took the analogy a little far,” she said in reference to the suggestion the former chancellor talked about chopping her up and placing her in a freezer.
In a bid to address the criticism, she spoke of her grandmother, who was a domestic servant, working as a lady’s maid below stairs. “And that servant – that lady’s maid – among her grandchildren boasts three professors and a prime minister,” she said, saying that was why the British dream inspired her.
May also spoke of the NHS supporting her when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and about the “great sadness” for her and her husband, Philip, at being unable to have children. “But I believe in the dream that life should be better for the next generation as much as any mother, any father, any grandparent,” she added.
She returned to themes set out in her first speech as leader, outside No 10 Downing Street, when she spoke of “fighting against burning injustice” and set out a vision of more interventionist red-Toryism.
Despite the interruptions, May also made a defence of capitalism to contrast her politics with Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism, whom she criticised, echoing cabinet colleagues by drawing on a comparison with the socialism of Venezuela.
May also criticised the Labour MP Laura Pidcock for suggesting that she would not be friends with Conservatives, claiming it was a sign of a problem with politics. She also accused Labour of being “riven with the stain of antisemitism” and suggested it was wrong that the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, needed a bodyguard.
She finished by demanding an end to party infighting after a week that has been dominated by stories of division and questions of a leadership challenge after interventions by Boris Johnson.
The foreign secretary carried out a newspaper interview that was seen as laying down his “red lines” for EU negotiations, in a move that was seen to undermine May and overshadow her own appearances at conference.
She said the party had a “duty to Britain” to shift the focus from the job security of senior Tories to that of ordinary working people, after at least 12 cabinet ministers expressed their frustrations with Johnson.
May said that “beyond the gossip pages of the newspapers, and beyond the streets, corridors and meeting rooms of Westminster, life continues – the daily lives of ordinary working people go on”.
“And they must be our focus today. Not worrying about our job security, but theirs.”
Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, said the speech had “power and passion” but he said a security investigation was necessary after the prank.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, joked that it would be “one of the most famous coughs in British history” but praised May for ploughing on.
The promise on energy bills came after 76 Tory MPs joined 116 MPs of other parties to urge May and the business secretary, Greg Clark, to introduce a cap for the 17m families on more expensive standard variable rates. They were angry that after the election Ofgem published watered down proposals that would protect only an additional 2.6m families.
“We must do more to protect the further 15m households who continue to be preyed on by the big six energy firms … It was promised in the three leading party manifestos … We hope you will work with us and Ofgem to stop this Big-6 stitch-up, and pledge to help the millions of households who Ofgem seem set to ignore,” the letter said.
The government issued a warning in the summer that it was still prepared to legislate after British Gas announced a 12.5% electricity price rise for more than 3m households.
In June, Clark wrote to the regulator asking it to safeguard “customers on the poorest value tariff”.
When Ofgem suggested extending an existing cap for 4m households on pre-payment meters to only a further 2.6m poorer households who receive the warm home discount it was seen as stepping away from the manifesto pledge.