Meet Keelan Carr, the Yorkshireman who wrote Theresa May's 2018 Tory conference speech

Yorkshireman Keelan Carr had three eventful years at Downing Street as he rose up the ranks to become Theresa May's speechwriter. He spoke to Political Editor Rob Parsons about the experience.

By Rob Parsons
Saturday, 3rd October 2020, 5:45 am

For a Prime Minister already described as fighting for her political life, it was a speech that went as badly as could be imagined.

Theresa May's 2017 address to Conservative party conference was notable for all the wrong reasons. A hacking cough, a set collapsing behind her and a prankster presenting her with a P45 live on stage meant few observers would remember the policy announcements.

Waiting in a temporary 'green room' backstage, alongside the buffet food and drink, was a team of advisers including Wakefield-born Keelen Carr, one of her speechwriters who joined the Downing Street team the previous summer.

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"Straight after she came off stage she appeared, pretty much her usual self, having a chat and there were no histrionics," recalls Mr Carr, in what he describes a "telling incident" about his former boss.

"The first thing that she said, because I'd lent her a suit carrier earlier in the conference, and she said 'Keelan did you get your suit carrier back?'

"I think if I just had that experience of the world falling around my ears, my first thought wouldn't be asking my junior staff member if he'd got his suit carrier back."

Keelan Carr, who worked at Downing Street for three years with Theresa May

Mr Carr, a pupil at Outwood Grange school in Wakefield before going to Oxford University in 2003, served in Downing Street for the duration of Mrs May's premiership between 2016 and 2019.

And 14 months after leaving government alongside the PM, the 35-year-old reflects on his time at what he describes as the "apex of government" during a period where Brexit was the topic which overshadowed all else in the corridors of power.

Among the highlights was writing Mrs May's speech to 2018's party conference, a considerably more successful address than a year before and described by some in the media as the best of her career.

Making the case for decency in politics in a period of febrile post-referendum politics and for modern Conservatism, the speech also found room for a zinger or two at the expense of Boris Johnson, who the previous day had sought to undermine Mrs May with his own speech.

Prime Minister Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage to make her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham in 2018. Pic: PA

Referencing her future successor's reported retort to the concerns of businesses over Brexit - 'f*** business' - the PM joked she had her own four-letter Anglo-Saxon word describing what her party would do for business. "Back business".

Weeks after a video of the PM dancing on a trip to Africa went viral, she took to the stage to the strains of Abba's Dancing Queen. Mr Carr recalls suggesting the idea "with no expectation that it would actually happen", but that it was the PM's idea to dance along as she approached the lectern.

"I think if you're walking and that music's playing, I don't know how you don't dance to it, it would feel awkward to walk with that music playing without dancing to it," he jokes.

A few months down the line, another 'battlefield promotion' saw him moved up from political speechwriter to director of research and messaging, a role which saw him prepare the PM for print interviews and the labour-intensive task of getting ready for Prime Minister's Questions.

Now retraining as a lawyer after ten years in politics, he can look back with pride at his time in Downing Street among the 'Rolls Royce machine in the civil service'.

"It feels like you're in a very consequential place with lots of very, very good people working very, very hard," he tells The Yorkshire Post.

"But the ultimate nature of it is that for decisions to be made by the Prime Minister, it's because it's a very hard decision hasn't been made further down the chain of command. So there's a lot of very difficult issues as well."

Growing up in what would later become Ed Balls' Morley and Outwood constituency in West Yorkshire, he was an armchair participant in politics without ever wearing his Conservative leanings too clearly on his sleeve as a teenager.

He went to work for the Conservative Party in Scotland after a period of unemployment post-university, knocking on doors in the East end of Glasgow in the 2009 Glasgow North East by-election alongside a young Ruth Davidson.

Following the 2010 election he went to work for the Conservatives' only Scottish MP David Mundell in Parliament, then at Conservative Research Department, part of the central organisation of the Conservative Party.

He entered government for the first time in 2015, following Mr Mundell to work as an adviser in the Scotland Office, a politically sensitive position with the Scottish National Party in the ascendancy after the 2014 independence referendum.

After the Brexit referendum two years later saw off David Cameron, Theresa May quickly became favourite to replace him and Mr Carr joined her team on what proved to be a short leadership campaign.

With Mrs May installed as Prime Minister, intent on delivering on the Brexit vote despite her own leanings towards staying in the EU, Mr Carr, another Remainer, joined the Downing Street Policy Unit. Before long a speechwriter job became available, prompting him to move downstairs to the speechwriter room on the ground floor.

"I went in for my first day in the speechwriter room, bright eyed and bushy tailed, went in to see my boss at the time [director strategy] Chris Wilkins and said 'what do you want me to work on'," he recalls.

"And he said 'close the door'. He said, 'we're going to announce a General Election in three hours' time'. So I was not in the circle of trust for that decision, I found out about it a few hours before the lectern went out and there was the fevered speculation as to what the absence or presence of the crest on the lectern meant and all this stuff."

Such was the overriding importance of Brexit, Mrs May's failure to deliver it represented a headwind to her political agenda that even the success of her 2018 speech struggled to overcome.

But he has nothing but praise for his former boss, who despite her cruel 'Maybot' nickname in the media he describes as a "very warm, personable, nice person".

"And she was a good person to work for," he says. "Sometimes in politics, you get to know people who present themselves to the media in a very polished, friendly, reasonable, appealing way, then when you get to know them in real life they are horrible.

"And she's not like that at all, she is someone who probably, first of all her skills is not spinning a line to a news interviewer. But the public did see, as well, that she is someone with a lot of integrity, and a lot of dignity. And I think those are important qualities in a politician, I do think the public can see that."