A prankster, a coughing fit and a restless party undermine May's 'last chance' speech and give Boris a boost

Like her 15-month tenure as British prime minister, Theresa May's address to the Tory party faithful Wednesday was derailed by a combination of bad luck and unfortunate timing, and a speech that was meant to get her leadership back on track ended up helping her rival.

Sideshow overshadowed substance in speech meant to get British PM's leadership back on track

British Prime Minister Theresa May clears her throat as she delivers her keynote speech during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Wednesday. The speech was plagued by numerous gaffes and interruptions. (Joe Giddens/PA/Associated Press)

Theresa May didn't sink her opening speech at Wednesday's Conservative Party Conference alone. Much like her 15-month tenure as British prime minister, the address to the party faithful was derailed by a combination of bad luck and unfortunate timing. 

As she clutched on to the Tory leadership and attempted to keep a presumed rival at bay, party members were left wondering where Brexit-era Britain is headed — and who's best to guide it there.

The Tories who filled a Manchester convention hall were eager to see whether the speech would reboot May's troubled leadership and silence her critics. But a prankster, a coughing fit and an unco-operative stage set undermined any chance of such a reset.

Twenty minutes into the hour-long speech, comedian Simon Brodkin handed May a mock termination of employment slip.

"Boris asked me to give this to you," he said, referring to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seated up front, who withdrew from the 2016 leadership race at the last minute and is widely seen to be gunning for May's job.

The prankster was escorted out of the building, but the awkwardness in the air didn't leave with him.

Mid-speech, the prime minister — apparently battling a cold for days — started coughing repeatedly, at times struggling to keep her voice. Behind her, the stage's backdrop slowly fell apart.

'Tories couldn't run a bath, let alone the country'

"One was left with the impression that the Tories couldn't run a bath, let alone the country," political commentator George Eaton wrote in the left-leaning New Statesman.

May's backers saw it differently. Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson tweeted "if ever the PM needed a metaphor for service and duty and resolution through adversity, that battling performance was it!"

But Tories who already questioned her future as leader were only further embarrassed. 

Some already considered the party's dismal performance in the June general election as a reason for her to leave. The snap election, which May called three years early, led the Conservatives to lose their parliamentary majority.

May has also struggled to reconcile the demands of "hard Brexit" Tories (who want a complete divorce from the EU) and those who'd prefer to keep loose ties to Britain's European neighbours. 

Wednesday's speech "was perhaps a last chance of rescue," said former Conservative MP Matthew Parris "and rescue came there none."

The sideshow overshadowed the substance — which included a pledge to provide more subsidized housing, a promised cap on energy prices and an apology for the party's dismal showing in the election.

Comedian Simon Brodkin, left, speaks to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, 2nd right, during May's speech. Brodkin interrupted the speech and handed May a mock pink slip, saying 'Boris asked me to give this to you.' (Rui Vieira/Associated Press)

Photos and video of the gaffes flooded social media and played on a seemingly endless loop on British television. The images showed Johnson, the former London mayor turned Brexit campaigner, telling the comedian to "go away."

Johnson was pushed out of last year's leadership race, which May ultimately won without contest. A thorn in her side, Johnson was still named foreign secretary. He has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to May in public, all the while being accused of acting as the prime minister's "backseat driver." 

Ahead of May's Sep. 22 milestone speech on Brexit, Johnson published his own view about how to exit the EU. "My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit," the Telegraph piece was titled. It read like the work of someone waiting for the top job. 

'Unsackable' Boris

Conveniently for Johnson, Wednesday's prank on May placed him in the centre of a story about party leadership. And it shuffled his own recent gaffes out of the headlines.

On Tuesday night, Johnson had been recorded at a Conservative Party event telling a crowd that Sirte, Libya — a city devastated by civil war — could become a tourist destination, if only someone could "clear the dead bodies away." It was just the latest misstep that led to calls for Johnson's firing. 

On Sunday, U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 aired video of Johnson on an official visit to Myanmar, reciting a British-colonial-era poem at a highly sacred Buddhist site. "You're on mic," Britain's ambassador to Myanmar is heard telling him. "Probably not a good idea."

A BBC interviewer asked the prime minister on Sunday whether Boris, as he's known, is "unsackable." She hesitated and dodged the question.

Johnson said the leader did a "great job" in her Wednesday speech, though former MP Matthew Parris suggests Johnson should say little else for now.

Johnson has "already annoyed a lot of people, including some of his natural supporters by seeming to make things much more difficult" for May, said Parris, who's now a columnist with the Times of London.

Johnson was widely expected to run against May in the 2016 Tory leadership race and even though he pulled out at the last minute, she still appointed him to her cabinet after she became prime minister in July 2016. Now, Johnson is widely seen to be vying for her job - although publicly he remains loyal to the embattled leader. (Leon Neal/Pool/Reuters)

"A period of silence and professionalism as foreign secretary — if he's capable of that — would be good for him."

Johnson's straight-talking style, however, is part of his appeal to grassroots members of the party. Beyond his noted support for Brexit, he burnished his leadership skills while serving as mayor through the 2011 London riots and 2012 Olympic Games. 

Monica Poletti, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London who helped poll Conservatives after the 2015 and 2017 general elections, said Tories said the character traits of a leader they value most are: strength and authority; the ability to "unite the nation"; and good communication skills.

She said she doubts members heard those traits in May's address. Poletti points out, though, that the most popular option selected by Conservatives polled about their next leader was "I don't know," meaning no contender suited them.

And the same seems to be true now. May has indicated she wants to lead the party into the next general election, but neither she nor Johnson enjoy overwhelming support.