The Independent commissioned BMG Research to gauge how the public might respond to Theresa May’s keynote speech at this year’s Conservative party conference held in Manchester. Immediately after the speech, BMG conducted two in-person discussion groups to give Independent readers a flavour of the type of discussions that the speech will have provoked.
In order to draw comparisons, all participants (bar one) took part in the previous week’s discussion research, on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party conference speech. (full results for the previous week can be found here)
Groups were balanced by demographics and political partisanship, but will not be an exact reflection of the nation at large. The video clips and summary below are designed to give a reflection of the content discussed in the groups who were ordinary members of the public.
Initial Impressions / Trigger Words
Even though we are now some four months past the 2017 General Election, it remains a striking and consistent feature of discussion research on British politics and society, how sentiment towards Mrs May has changed so dramatically. Her reputation, compared to just a few months ago, no longer commands respect among participants, and the sentiment towards the mere mention of her name has changed drastically for the worse.
Notably, not one participant chooses to refer to the Prime Minister as a ‘strong’ or ‘dependable’ leader, though she retains an aura of a stern, and perhaps stubborn, headmistress. For some there was an overwhelming expression of pity, but also an inevitable sense that she is destined to either quit, or be pushed out of her role by ambitious Tories before the next General Election, the only question being, when?
1. School Ma’am
6. Sorry for her
There was a mixed reaction to Theresa May’s election apology, even among Leave voters, who tended to be a little more supportive, when compared with Remainers. Some participants were quite critical, believing that it was too little too late to be apologising, accusing her of still being in “denial”, and despite apologising, some felt that she still came across as “arrogant”.
However, others were more receptive to the apology, as they saw it as a rare occurrence for politicians to accept responsibility for their decisions, and to say sorry so clearly, acknowledging that it was probably hard for her to publicly admit that she was wrong.
However, despite the apology, very few participants thought Theresa May would last until the next election, just two of the sixteen participants of this research felt that she had a chance of surviving in the next election, with one Conservative voter concluding; “I think she’s been beaten-up enough now”.
P45 Stunt & Persistent Coughing
On balance, May was thought to have handled well, the interruption from Comedian Simon Brokdin, a serial ‘speech disruptor’ who has pulled off similar political ‘stunts’ in the past.
Participants were also critical that media attention so quickly shifted focus to many of the incidents that took place during the speech. Some felt that the scrum of reporters and photographers, who surrounded Mr Brokdin (AKA Lee Nelson) as he was escorted out of the hall, was fuel to the fire and gave the stunt attention it did not deserve. Others criticised the coverage that they had heard in the hours since the speech, disappointed that journalists/presenters had focussed on the incidents rather than discussing any policy announcements.
Most felt on-balance that she dealt with the persistent struggle with her cough relatively well. A number of participants said the reaction made her more “human”, others said that the jokes made her relatable and offered a refreshing chance to see her go ‘off-script’. Some participants said that they felt sorry for her also.
It should also be noted that there were a significant minority who were very critical of the Prime Minister, showing no sympathy, seeing the coughing as ‘unprofessional’ and ‘disgusting’. Some did feel she should have stopped to compose herself, and then come back to present when more refreshed. However, for many participants, clips of the interruption and coughing stimulated some of the most positive responses. Many displayed empathy with May, even though they disagreed with her politics, often imagining themselves in her shoes, and reflected on their own personal experiences, and describing how they felt when similar things happened to them.
Participants also tended not to engage with some of the more symbolic interpretations of the incidents i.e. symbolic of the PM’s weakness/symbolic of her strength: “I think it just shows that she’s human, she’s got a cough, err, so, you-know, you’ve got a cough, what you gonna do? Choke-to-death?”
Participants tended to be fairly bemused by Theresa May’s continued reference to the “British Dream”. Many participants were left scratching their heads about what a British dream may be, and some saw it simply as a crude rip-off of the Hollywood idealised imagery of the American dream, and felt that the speech at times came across as overly scripted and nostalgic.
When asked how they would describe the British dream, all participants fell silent, with many reaching the conclusion that it didn’t mean anything, and if it did, one size wouldn’t fit all. There was a strong post-modern undercurrent to people’s ideological grounding, with a clear reluctance to the state, or any individual for that matter, defining what people should want or strive for.
On balance, the housing and energy announcements were quite well received. All sixteen participants agreed with the substance of the policy proposal, often citing personal experiences of housing and energy bills.
Most participants were sceptical that May would actually deliver on her promises, though many were also impressed that she had set out a time-frame and standard to be judged against. That being said, it should be noted that a handful of participants interpreted the commitments to energy policy to take effect remarkably quickly, and there may well be the expectation from some that their bills will being changing within a week. In that sense, viewer expectations could have been managed much better, as some may be disappointed if they feel they were over-promised on the policy.
Participants also said the announcements reminded them of Labour policies, referring to Corbyn’s speech last week, and to Ed Miliband in relation to the proposed energy cap. One participant described the announcements as a “terrible copy”, another commented on the hypocrisy of attacking Miliband for his economic views over the policy, and now being seen to adopt the policy proposal unashamedly in full.
There was a real sense, from both groups, that May’s government is taking Corbyn/Labour’s lead on many areas of social and economic policy, with no original and appealing ideas. There was a sense from both groups that Labour and Corbyn are in some ways more responsible for Tory policy development, and policy changes like the energy price cap, more social housing and capped student fees are being credited to Corbyn and Labour. None of the more well-received policy proposals stood out as initiatives that participants would associate with the Conservatives by default.
An article by The Independent on our analysis, including a highlights video, can be found here.
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On Wednesday 4th October 2017 BMG Research conducted two in-person discussion groups for The Independent, just a few hours after Theresa May finished delivering her 2017 party conference speech. In order to draw comparisons, all participants (bar one) took part in the previous week’s discussion research, on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party conference key note speech. Highlights and key moments from the speech were shown to participants who were asked for their reaction, before themes relating to the content of the clip were explored in more detail. Groups were split into Remain and Leave voters, with a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Groups also had a mix of political partisanship with Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Non-Voters selected in each. All participants reside in the West Midlands. Both groups were recruited, moderated, recorded and the final results analysed by BMG Research.
Dr Michael Turner – Research Director
Robert Struthers – Senior Research Executive