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British Prime Minister Theresa May Trying To Maintain Control Over Conservative Party


British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech today that was supposed to do something crucial. She needed to assert her control over the country's ruling Conservative Party as it figures out how the U.K. will exit the European Union. But instead of asserting her authority, May became the victim of a prank. And then she fought to speak through coughing fits that seemed to underscore her political vulnerability. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Manchester.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The stakes for May at the Conservative Party's annual meeting were big. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been upstaging her by publicly challenging her position on Brexit. She's been trying to soldier on after leading her party to an electoral debacle in June which early on in yesterday's speech she apologized for.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I'm take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.


LANGFITT: Soon afterwards, a prankster approached the stage and handed May a P45, the British equivalent of a pink slip. He said it was from Boris Johnson, who it's widely thought wants to replace her. May laughed it off but then fell into a series of coughing fits.


MAY: We will oversee the biggest expansion in training for doctors and nurses. And we (coughing) - and we...

LANGFITT: She drank glass after glass of water. Philip Hammond, the U.K.'s treasury secretary, stepped up from the audience and handed her a throat lozenge. But the United Kingdom's prime minister couldn't shake it.


MAY: So - while - while we will - excuse me - we will never hesitate to act where businesses aren't operating as they should.

LANGFITT: Toward the end, letters from the party's slogan, building a country that works for everyone, fell off the wall behind her. The scene might have seemed comic had it not been so excruciating to watch. Quote, "Theresa May's conference speech was such an epic disaster. Her message literally fell apart before our eyes," read a headline in The Mirror, the British tabloid. Many who attended expressed sympathy for May, who fought her way to the end of the speech.

JAMES CLEVERLY: Your heart goes out to her. You know, you're willing her to succeed.

LANGFITT: James Cleverly is a conservative member of Parliament.

CLEVERLY: You could feel it. It was almost palpable in the room - the whole party saying, come on, girl; you can do this. And she did. She fought through, and she made it happen.

LANGFITT: Many outside, though, saw the speech as a metaphor for a prime minister who's never recovered from an election she called that lost her party its majority in Parliament. One Twitter user posted a GIF of a Formula One racecar crashing after its front wheels simultaneously popped off. Anthony Seymour, a party member from London who attended the speech, saw it as a lost opportunity.

ANTHONY SEYMOUR: She didn't really recover, which is a shame because what she said was very, very important. And she had quite a few good things to say.

LANGFITT: In fact, May talked about big issues facing British society, including a renewed debate over capitalism and socialism that the party thought it had won during the 1980s under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Now the Tories face a resurgent Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed socialist.


MAY: And we must come together to fight for this mainstream conservative agenda to win the battle of ideas in a new generation all over again, for those ideas are being tested. And at stake are the very things we value.

LANGFITT: It's unlikely, though, that May's speech will be remembered today for its ideas and more likely for her painful struggle to deliver them. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Manchester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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