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Last year the Prime Minister looked as though she was going to die on stage. This year she took enormous pains to avoid a repetition of that debacle, and succeeded in clearing that rather modest bar with some space to spare.

But because she had worked so hard to be safe, it cannot be said that as a piece of political theatre, her performance was an unmitigated triumph.

Among her audience, there was none of the willing suspension of disbelief which is induced by a masterpiece. Theresa May offered more modest, but perhaps for that reason more dependable, virtues.

She was tactful: the word “Chequers” did not cross her lips. There was no sense that she was taking either the party or the nation into her confidence.

The Prime Minister offered instead a code of behaviour. She reached out to everyone who believes in good manners. So she denounced the racist and misogynist abuse which is heaped on Diane Abbott, the first black woman ever elected to the House of Commons, which is worse now than it was 30 years ago.

May said it is no good when “our politics becomes polarised, and compromise becomes a dirty word”. She insisted that the Conservatives have “the power to set a standard of decency that will be an example for others to follow”.

This was May being true to herself. She was brought up to set a good example, and so she does. Quite late in her speech, she said that businesses “may have heard that there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to you. It has a single syllable. It is of Anglo-Saxon derivation. It ends in the letter ‘K’.”

She then revealed that the word she had in mind is “back”, as used in such expressions as “Back business”.

The hall enjoyed this carefully crafted attack on Boris Johnson, who was recently reported to have applied an earthier four-letter word to business. But once again, the substitute epithet offered by the Prime Minister was distinctly tepid.

We were promised that before May spoke, a celebrity would deliver a warm-up act. The photographer sitting at the next door desk to mine, who has high standards about such things, said that as far as he was concerned, only someone like Angelina Jolie would count as a celebrity.

Imagine our astonishment when the celebrity turned out to be none other than the Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox. Perhaps he had been asked to stand in at the last minute, when the unknown celebrity got cold feet.

Cox seized his opportunity with both hands. Here was the majesty of the English bar in all its traditional pomp, before the dawn of dreary understatement. It was like listening to Horace Rumpole auditioning for the part of Henry V, with hand gestures to match.

In his loud, clear, old-fashioned voice, he exhorted Conservatives to “be grown up about it” and to “put aside differences and unite behind the Prime Minister”. The hall greeted this appeal for unity with prolonged applause.

Cox ended with a sublime passage from Milton: “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam.”

It is not May’s style to compete with language like that. She entered instead with a few dance steps, executed to the sound of Dancing Queen, which was enjoyable enough, but again chosen to be safe.

The Symphony Hall in Birmingham has far better acoustics than the miserable hall in Manchester where May last year suffered her coughing fit, and she herself was far better too. But there was no hint here that she can transcend her limitations.

11 comments for: Andrew Gimson’s Conference Sketch: The Prime Minister restores her reputation for unexciting reliability

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