Like May's speech, my country is a joke

theresa may speech prankster removed_00000826
theresa may speech prankster removed_00000826

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Story highlights

  • Rob Crilly: If ever Theresa May needed to deliver a commanding speech, the Conservative Party Conference Wednesday was the time
  • The calamitous address -- plagued by a cough, a prankster, and a crumbling set -- was hardly May's fault but an apt metaphor for the state of Britain, Crilly writes

Rob Crilly is a British journalist living in New York. He was The Telegraph's Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and was previously the East Africa correspondent for The Times of London. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)It's official: My country is a joke.

Britain is headed for the European Union with no idea of what comes next; Theresa May, the prime minister, calls a snap election to ask the nation who should govern, and is promptly told "not you."
When she comes to the UN General Assembly, the annual jamboree for world leaders, she is relegated to the second day of speeches and finds herself addressing a nearly empty hall, 24 hours after Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron have had their moment in the spotlight.
    Rob Crilly
    Although, given the calamitous turn of events at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester Wednesday, we should probably be grateful that no one was there to see her speak at the United Nations.
    Prime Minister May delivered not so much a speech as a painful metaphor for the state of Britain and the state of her leadership.
    With her party in turmoil after she frittered away the Tory majority in Parliament, it was a chance to head off rivals -- such as Boris Johnson, her foreign secretary - who smell blood and are circling like sharks.
    But after today, it's not sharks anymore. Now the vultures are hovering.
    Theresa May's problem is that the events fit with the dominant narrative of her as a failing Prime Minister, stumbling on in power from one calamity to the next.
    Let me take a moment to set the scene. The party leader's speech is one of the big set pieces of the year. For the Prime Minister, it is right up there with the Queen's Speech, when the government sets out its legislative agenda. (The address is so important that a mere commoner cannot be entrusted with it -- for good reason, as it turns out.)
    For May, the Conservative Party Conference speech Wednesday was even more important. It was a chance to set the tone as lawmakers return to Parliament after their summer vacation. If ever she needed to deliver a commanding performance, this was the time.
    But her voice refused to play ball. An insistent cough sabotaged her every effort, resisting gulps of water and reducing her words to a feeble croak. Never mind the pain to her larynx, this was painful on the ears.
    It got worse as she tried to build to a killer line about the United Kingdom moving forward in the world: "It's the Conservative Party that has a vision of an open, global self-confident Britain ..." She paused, distracted as a lone figure approached the podium.
    "Boris asked me to give you...." he said, trying to hand the Prime Minister a P45 -- the letter issued when an employee leaves their job.
    Get it?
    May gamely carried on even as security guards hustled the man, serial prankster Simon Brodkin who goes by the name Lee Nelson, out of the hall. But the damage was done.
    There will be a security investigation. How did he get in? How did he get so close to the Prime Minister?
    But that's not the problem. The problem is that what might have been passed off as a bit of knockabout fun by a David Cameron or a Tony Blair, now looks like a defining moment for this Prime Minister.
    We're not laughing with her but at her.
    Worse still, her set disintegrated before she had finished. Two letters fell from the sign touting the conference slogan of "Building a country that works for everyone" -- which ended up reading "Building a country that works or everyon."
    Of course, it wasn't her fault that she picked up a cough, was targeted by a notorious prankster and the set fell down. Many of us grapple with fear of public speaking, and May's struggles must now look like some of those nightmares come to life.
    Meanwhile, there are other leaders around the world who face bigger crises at home and abroad yet seem to sail blithely on.
    How she must have wished she had some rolls of paper towels on stage to lob into the audience as a distraction from the unfolding spectacle.
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    Some of her loyal allies did try to make the best of it.
    Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said viewers would sympathize, knowing what it was like to struggle into work with a sore throat.
    "Well I think she came across as very human," he told the BBC.
    Which, with the way her year has gone so far, probably counts as a win.