RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Embattled U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May gave one of the most important speeches of her political career this morning, and it could not have gone much worse. A prankster interrupted her mid-speech at her Conservative Party conference in the city of Manchester. And then, for the next 40 minutes, she struggled to find her voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: We will oversee the biggest expansion in training for doctors and nurses (coughing) and we (coughing) and we (coughing) shows what good the chancellor's cough sweet is.
MARTIN: NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt was in the hall and watched this all unfold. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Sounded awkward at best.
LANGFITT: I've actually never seen anything like it. That actually, what you heard there, went on and on for many - I mean, for minutes and minutes. What happened was this protester, a prankster, handed her what's called a P45, which is the British equivalent of a pink slip. And soon afterwards, she got this frog in her throat. She was really raspy. At one point, Philip Hammond - he's the chancellor - stood up out of the audience to give her a throat lozenge. She ended up drinking glass after glass out of - of water. And at times, it wasn't clear she was even going to make it through, and she did make it to the end, but not before the letters - some of the letters fell off the party's slogan behind her.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
LANGFITT: And the slogan is building a country that works for everyone. So literally, by the end, her message was falling apart.
MARTIN: I mean, you could dismiss this as just like it's a bad day. It happens to people who have to give public speeches sometimes. But what's important is the context, right? She has been suffering from - I mean, it's a party that is divided and her fate is in question.
LANGFITT: No, it really - it's, you know, this could have happened at, you know, a local speech and nobody would pay attention. But this is totally different. This is the party convention basically. She had called the snap election, Theresa May, back last May when the party was 20 points ahead in the polls, looked like they were going to rule for years. She ran a terrible campaign, lost parliamentary majority, still held on to power. At the time, one of her rivals called her a dead woman walking. She came in here to Manchester struggling to keep her cabinet in line. Frankly, there's certainly a sense that there are some sharks that are circling, eyeing her job. And now today, it seems like there's a bit more blood in the water. This has got to be the last thing she wanted to happen.
MARTIN: What's the reaction been like in the U.K. to this?
LANGFITT: Well, it's just a little early. We just - as you can hear, people are cleaning up right now at the convention center. Online, people saw this as a metaphor for a prime minister who's just holding on and can't seem to get much right. Somebody posted a gif on Twitter, which was of a Formula One racecar on a track driving around with both wheels popping off at once and crashing. And that seemed to be the way a lot of people were viewing this.
MARTIN: Yeah. We should just remind people you are in the hall where the speech has just happened.
LANGFITT: Yes, I am. That's why it's so loud.
MARTIN: So they are moving chairs, et cetera.
LANGFITT: Right, exactly, everybody's packing out right now.
MARTIN: So what about her Conservative Party members? I mean, this was an important speech for her in this moment.
LANGFITT: It was, and of course, I think they were very disappointed in that she struggled so much with the speech. Many felt very sorry for her - I'm sure even her rivals or some of her people who are critical of her. A lot of people rallied to her. During the speech, they cheered her on as she struggled, and they gave her a lot of credit for finishing. The problem is she has rivals and open rivals, one of them Boris Johnson. He's the foreign secretary. He's seen as wanting her job. And so this is one more piece of ammunition for people in the party who want to say, you know, she's just not up to it.
MARTIN: It's about big ideas, too, in this moment. I mean, the U.K., there's a lot of challenges that she faces.
LANGFITT: It is. This comes at a huge moment for the country. The U.K. is trying to leave the European Union. It's the biggest challenge in decades. It's a very uncertain political landscape, and what people are really looking for across the country is leadership and direction and certainty. And they didn't really get that with this performance today.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much for your time this morning, Frank.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel.
MARTIN: You're listening to Frank Langfitt report on the conservative conference in the U.K. this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.