MANCHESTER, England — It was excruciating, embarrassing, hard to watch.
British Prime Minister Theresa May stood, alone, in front of the nation, coughing and spluttering, her voice giving way as she gave the closing address at her party’s annual conference on Wednesday.
It was meant to be a chance for the U.K. prime minister to resurrect her leadership after a downbeat conference beset by stories of Cabinet splits.
Instead, the speech exemplified a wounded prime minister willed on by a party with no appetite for a leadership contest and no credible alternative. The Tory leader, who last year bathed in the warm affection of a party with its eyes fixed on delivering Brexit, clung on as the disasters kept coming.
“The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you,” May said, with inadvertent relevance. The audience jumped in to cheer her.
As journalists covered their eyes in embarrassment, the party faithful did all they could to get her through it. When her voice gave way, they rallied round her, clapping and cheering on their feet to give her time to take a cough sweet from the chancellor. May, much-criticized for her habit of sticking rigidly to her scripts, even managed to be light on her feet, quipping that she had just been given something from the chancellor for free.
The spectacle was a metaphor for her premiership: weakened, limping on, waiting to be put out of its misery, but carrying on no matter how bad it looked.
It never rains but it pours
The prime minister began with a frank apology for her performance in June’s general election in which her party lost its majority.
Before she lost her voice, a prankster managed to reach the stage, waving a form issued to U.K. employees when they leave a job.
As she spoke, an “f” fell from the slogan stuck to the wall behind her, followed later by an “e,” leaving: “Building a country that works or everyon.”
Opposition Labour Party supporters were quick to capitalize. The Jeremy Corbyn for PM account tweeted that the Tory conference was “literally telling the prime minister to F off.”
When the intruder rushed up to her, one person in the crowd shouted at Boris Johnson that it was his fault, a glimpse of anger among some in the party for the foreign secretary’s perceived disloyalty, which has overshadowed much of the week.
The Tory grassroots might fear she isn’t up to it, but they admire her doggedness and she is one of their own.
Aides and allies were quick to praise her strength in the face of adversity.
“There are few things more inspiring than triumphing through difficulty,” Digital Minister Matthew Hancock wrote on Twitter during the speech. “Our prime minister is doing just that right now with great humor.”