ABBA's 'Dancing Queen' helped Theresa May save her political skin

Given that her previous annual speech to members of her party ...

Posted: Oct 3, 2018 3:01 PM
Updated: Oct 3, 2018 3:01 PM

Given that her previous annual speech to members of her party was an unmitigated disaster for Theresa May, the bar for this year was pretty low.

The British Prime Minister wanted to show her Conservative Party -- and the country -- that there is more to her government than the tortuous Brexit negotations, with some optimism about the future.

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Instead, she far exceeded their expectations, delighting members of Parliament and activists from the first minute: the normally rigid, awkward Prime Minister came onto the conference stage to ABBA's "Dancing Queen," breaking out some moves as she approached the lectern.

The idea to open her speech this way -- making light of her stilted dances during a trip to South Africa in August -- was all hers.

Widely mocked for being robotic in persona and intransigent in policy, May decided to take ownership, self-deprecatingly, of her flaws. But it was also her opportunity to show the Conservative Party -- including her arch-critic Boris Johnson -- that she is still in charge of the Brexit process and has authority over her government.

It was a tough ask. Privately, her allies had been just hoping she would make it to the end of the speech, and the end of the four-day conference in Birmingham, without mishap -- which last year included a persistent cough, the set behind her falling apart and a stage invasion by someone handing her the British equivalent of a pink slip. It was that last incident that seemed, at the time, the most portentous -- foreshadowing her resignation over Brexit. Yet that resignation never came.

That is not to say the last year has been an easy one for May. It has been a turbulent 12 months, bookended by these two pivotal speeches.

Of course, May did not resign, but seven of her Cabinet ministers walked out, for various reasons.

Two of those resignations were potentially the most damaging, because they were in direct opposition to her so-called Chequers plan for withdrawal from the EU: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as Brexit secretary.

The work of her government has seemed stymied by Brexit. Negotiations with Brussels have been slow and difficult, forcing the PM to take personal charge of the talks this summer. Last month, she took her Chequers plan to a summit in Salzburg where it was rebuffed by fellow EU leaders.

Though this was a serious blow to her credibility, the next day May came out fighting, demanding respect from the EU.

This lack of support has been much closer to home, too.

Since his resignation in July, Johnson has engaged in regular attacks against the Prime Minister over Brexit, most recently in a packed-out event at the conference on Tuesday, when his call to "chuck Chequers" was cheered by pro-Brexit Tory activists.

Yet despite rapturous applause for the former Foreign secretary, many of his fellow Conservative MPs saw this attempt to overshadow the PM as an act of disloyalty. Similarly, a Tory MP who lodged a letter calling for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, minutes before May was due on stage, was dismissed by his colleagues as ill-timed and disloyal.

The Prime Minister had two main messages: one for her party and one for the country.

On the first, she made clear she would not change tack on Chequers, despite escalating calls from Brexiteer Tory MPs, and from remain supporters who want a second referendum. The result of the 2016 EU referendum must be honored and she would not shift on the issue of breaking up the United Kingdom -- something that would be under threat if the alternative plan floated by Johnson and other Brexiteers were agreed.

On the second, she tried to pitch to the center ground, appealing to voters who are disaffected by the opposition Labour leader's hard left-wing, anti-business policies. She pledged the Tories would be a "party for the whole country" that was "decent, moderate and patriotic."

Her performance was strong enough to see off her critics inside the Conservative Party -- for now. Yet in a week's time, the next round of Brexit negotiations between the UK and Brussels takes place at which there is supposed to be significant progress made towards a deal.

During her party conference, which was being watched closely by EU chiefs back in Brussels, there were reports that the UK might agree to stay in the customs union beyond the end of the Brexit transition phase at the end of 2020. If that is on the cards, May did not make mention of it in her speech -- presumably to keep her party inside the hall onside. Yet the UK will need to make concessions to break the deadlock on Brexit next week.

The Prime Minister has survived her toughest year so far -- but an even tougher one lies ahead.

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