ANALYSIS Theresa May asked the EU for a Tory conference lifeline - instead they threw her a grenade
Did anyone think Theresa May could end up having a worse Tory conference than last year?
In her set-piece speech nearly 12 months ago, a coughing fit turned her voice into an inaudible wheeze, a comedy protester handed her a mock-P45 and the set literally began falling apart behind her. Anything after that was bound to be an improvement, right?
Well, Donald Tusk has done his best to ensure that this year's jamboree in Birmingham could be even worse by announcing that May's Chequers plan for Brexit “will not work”.
The Cabinet blueprint has been battered and bruised since the PM unveiled it in July, but Tusk's remarks in the wake of a mini-EU summit in Salzburg have surely administered the last rites.
Put simply, it was not supposed to be like this. May had hoped that, at the very least, her fellow European leaders would have provided a glimmer of hope that next month's crucial EU Council meeting in Brussels will deliver a deal she can sell to the Commons.
That has evaporated and, with the Tory conference just 10 days away, the Prime Minister knows she is now fighting for her political life.
The four-day gathering was always going to be tough for her. Opinion polls suggest the general public is unimpressed - to put it mildly - with Chequers, but their antipathy is nothing compared to the outright hostility among her party membership, most of whom see it as a betrayal of the referendum result.
Being cooped up at the Birmingham ICC with hundreds of people who hate your central policy isn’t exactly a walk in the Swiss mountains. And that’s before Boris Johnson and a host of other Brexiteer MPs have offered their two cents-worth at the endless list of fringe events.
Tory MP Ben Bradley - who quit as a party vice-chair over the Chequers deal - tells PolHome the PM should use the opportunity to change course. "Tusk saying Chequers is dead means the PM needs to revert to the simple Free Trade Agreement plan she used to talk about," he says. "Conference is an opportunity for her to do that and if she does I think she'll find it is positively received. If she sticks by Chequers it could be very awkward with members."
Theresa May had been hoping for some warm words from the EU which would have served as a get-out-of jail free card at the Tory get-together. Anything that would have let her hold her Chequers plan up and say ‘this has not been killed off... yet’ would have been a help. Instead they sent her away with a target stuck to her forehead.
Her only saving grace is that her critics do not yet have a plan of their own - but that won’t stop them kicking hers while it’s down.