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Coughing fit, prankster undermine speech by May aimed at uniting party

Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister Theresa May addresses delegates during a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, on Oct. 4, 2017.

Rui Vieira/AP

When British Prime Minister Theresa May took the stage at the Conservative Party's annual conference, she hoped to deliver a keynote speech that would unite party members and rally the country around her approach to Brexit. Instead, her speech here on Wednesday turned into an agonizing ordeal as Ms. May battled a persistent cough, confronted a prankster and stood talking while a backdrop fell apart.

The image of Ms. May hacking uncontrollably and losing her voice repeatedly,during the speech won't do much to dispel the impression that she's on shaky ground as Prime Minister. Her leadership has been in doubt ever since she called an election in June that left the Conservatives with fewer seats in the House of Commons and clinging to a minority government with the help of a right-wing party based in Northern Ireland.

There's also been growing concern about the lack of progress in Brexit negotiations with the European Union that have hit a stalemate over a dispute about how much Britain should pay to cover its financial obligations. The EU's top negotiators said this week that little progress had been made and that no other issues can be discussed, including future trade arrangements, until the financial question is settled. Ms. May has been eager to have a trade deal in place by the time Britain formally leaves the EU in March, 2019, but the time to reach a pact is running out.

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Her speech on Wednesday was supposed to be an attempt to heal party rifts, particularly within her cabinet, and set a positive vision for Brexit. She started out with an apology for the election call, acknowledging to delegates that the national campaign fell short and was too scripted. "I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry," she said.

Then as she veered into government policy, Ms. May was overcome by coughing. She'd been battling a cold all week and seemed unable to stop despite taking several drinks of water. The coughing prompted Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond to hand her a lozenge but that didn't seem to work either and she lost her voice several times. Then, comedian Simon Brodkin, who has a history of staging pranks, stood up in the front row of the auditorium and handed Ms. May a fake P45 form, which is a termination notice. Ms. May fumbled and took the paper just before security officers quickly bundled Mr. Brodkin out of the room where he was arrested by police. Manchester police later said that he had proper accreditation to the conference, prompting the party to say it will review its credentials procedure and security measures. Amid all of that, as Ms. May spoke, letters began falling off a party slogan that had been affixed to the wall behind her.

Most delegates, and several opposition MPs, felt sympathy as they watched Ms. May. "The Prime Minister was clearly struggling because of her not feeling so well," Tory MP Stuart Andrew said. "What it might also do is make people realize that this is a human being. And what she did in that speech was despite all of that, she carried on and she got right to the end [of the speech]."

Ms. May later poked fun at herself by posting a Tweet that said "*coughs*" that was accompanied by a picture of her speaking notes and a variety of cough medicines.

Despite the challenges, she did manage to outline some new policies and tackle Brexit. Much of what she said was aimed at thwarting the rising popularity of the Labour Party, which has won wide support for its proposals to nationalize railways, increase pay for public-sector workers, such as nurses and police officers, and end university tuition. Ms. May promised more spending on housing and vowed to scrap a planned tuition hike. She also outlined a measure to cap home-heating costs and bring "an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all."

But it's Brexit that's proving the biggest challenge to Ms. May's leadership. Her cabinet and caucus have been deeply divided over Britain's negotiations with the EU, and she's mainly hung on to her position because the party can't bear the prospect of a leadership battle and the disruption that would cause to the Brexit talks. She's also had to fend off calls to fire Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has proposed his own plan for Brexit in a series of newspaper articles.

Mr. Johnson has been particularly critical of proposals for a lengthy transition period once Britain leaves the EU in 2019. Ms. May has suggested a transition period of "around two years," during which Britain would continue to contribute to the EU budget and retain access to Europe's single market for goods and services. Other cabinet ministers, including Mr. Hammond, have called for an even longer period, reflecting the views of many business leaders who fear an abrupt departure.

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Mr. Johnson is against a transition and wants it to be as short as possible. He has also said Britain's payment to cover EU obligations should be minimal, even though some EU estimates put the figure as high as €100-billion, or $146-billion. During this week's party conference, Mr. Johnson gave a bullish assessment of Britain's future post-Brexit, telling delegates the country would be able to negotiate trade treaties with Canada, the United States and Australia within two years of leaving the EU. And in a rhetorical flurry about Britain's entrepreneurial spirit, he caused controversy Tuesday night by talking about how some British businessmen wanted to turn the war-torn Libyan city of Sirte into a tourist destination. "The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away," he said. That led to calls for his resignation from several opposition MPs and caused several cabinet ministers to distance themselves from the remarks.

Ms. May has defended Mr. Johnson, saying she accepts varying views in cabinet, but some Tory MPs have called for him to be fired for undermining the government. On Wednesday, Ms. May kept an upbeat tone about Brexit, saying in her speech that while the negotiations may be frustrating, "I am confident we will find a deal that works for Britain and Europe too."

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