By Elizabeth Piper and William James
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May's attempt to enthuse her divided party was overshadowed on Wednesday by an extended coughing fit, a prankster and a even some letters falling off the slogan on stage behind her.
May had wanted reset her Conservative agenda to try to reassert her authority, but was forced to stop several times - by coughing fits that forced her to take drinks of water and even a lozenge from her finance minister, and once when a protester waved a dismissal notice under her nose.
Near the end of her speech, several letters fell off the party slogan placed on the wall just behind her: "Building a country that works for everyone".
The 61-year-old May won standing ovations for pressing on with the address, in which she took a more personal tone - saying she did not mind being called the "Ice Maiden" and describing her "great sadness" at not having children.
After leading her party into an election in June that cost it its parliamentary majority, May badly needed to present herself as an effective leader.
She offered Conservative members "hungry for ideas" a renewal of traditional values while making new promises to the younger generation and those "just about managing".
"This is a Conservatism I believe in, a Conservatism of fairness and justice and opportunity for all, a Conservatism that keeps the British dream alive for a new generation," she told the cheering crowd.
"That's what I'm in this for," she said, in a phrase she repeated at least eight times. "That's what we must all be in this for."
Brexit minister David Davis told Reuters it had been "a very good speech, it hit all the issues people care about".
And many in the audience said her coughing fit and the sudden appearance by British comedian Simon Brodkin had helped to win them over.
"Actually, if all that stuff hadn't happened, it would have just been another kind of wooden presentation," said Pippa Smith, a 26-year-old party member from London. "It was a good speech, but I think actually it did her a favor."
The conference in the northern English city of Manchester was a somber affair, light on policy and heavy on self-doubt. Despite coming second in the June election, the opposition Labour Party's annual meeting a week earlier was celebratory.
After Labour's assault on some elements of capitalism, the backbone of Conservative policy, May sought to re-argue the defense of free markets and fiscal prudence.
"The free market - and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart - remains the greatest agent of collective human progress even created," she told members.
"Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain is so stark. The difference between the parties is so clear."
She tried to compete with Labour on its pledges to voters, offering 2 billion pounds to build cheaper houses, proposing a cap on what she called "rip-off" energy prices and to ease the burden of student debt.
But most party members said that, rather than policy, they wanted to see a return of May's confidence, crushed in the June election, when she earned the nickname "Maybot" for repeating catchphrases.
"We did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short," she told members. "I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry."
But she also told her party to unite, as divisions over Brexit have come to the fore with a challenge by her foreign minister, Boris Johnson.
The run-up to May's speech was again overshadowed by Johnson, who once more dominated the airwaves after stunning some party members at the conference by saying Libya could become a new Dubai if it could "clear the dead bodies away".
"Let us shape up and give the country the government it needs," May said.
"For, beyond this hall, beyond the gossip pages of the newspapers, and beyond the streets, corridors and meeting rooms of Westminster, life continues – the daily lives of ordinary working people go on. And they must be our focus today."
(Editing by Stephen Addison)