It began with such gusto: an inspiring montage of Prime Minister Theresa May’s journey so far, to the tune of Florence & the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love”; an energetic step onto the stage, as Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came For” played; and then a standing ovation as May began her much-anticipated speech on the fourth and final day of this year’s Conservative Party Conference.
Initially, May looked set to meet the occasion with an impassioned, personal speech. She invoked the “British dream”—the lofty idea that “each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future”—13 times in her opening lines (36 times, overall). The day before, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had called on the party to liberate Britain from the EU with the rallying cry: “Let the lion roar.” For a short while, she did her best impression.
But then, as if offering a concentrated rendition of her doomed election campaign, May’s spectacle of strength and stability descended into a pitiable struggle with herself. First, she was interrupted by a notorious prankster. Minutes later, she lapsed into a violent coughing fit, wheezing and croaking through the remaining 40 minutes of her speech. The British lion had lost its voice. Only with a rasping whisper could she deliver her catchphrase: “Our first and most important duty is to get Brexit right. The people have decided.” The British have a “historic mission” to leave the European Union—and, like May on Wednesday, they will carry it off, never mind what state they’re in, or the effects on their reputation and future health. This is about a duty to stand alone, to reclaim the limelight, whatever the response. Later, the letters started falling off the conference set behind her, altering the party’s slogan from Building A Country That Works For Everyone to Building A Country That Works or Everyone; eventually, gravity reduced it to Bui ding A C ntry Tha orks or ryon. Her British dream had become a nightmare. Will Britain’s go the same way?