James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Despite the elevated roles that David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson have, Theresa May’s and Philip Hammond’s speeches are by far the most important at Conference. They’re driving the Government’s agenda. I’ll look at May next week. So what should we see from Hammond?
There are two superficially attractive options for Hammond. The first is a “personal” speech that reveals more about his character and priorities than we’ve seen previously. (No doubt helped by an interview before in somewhere like the Saturday Times magazine).
It helps when the public understand the character of senior politicians. People become more sympathetic towards their motives, which is crucial in difficult times. George Osborne undoubtedly suffered from a sense that he was out of touch with ordinary people.
Hammond is seen competent, tough and sensible. At worst he’s seen as boring. He can add nuance over time but as Chancellor there are worse reputations to start with. But the need to define his character is completely dwarfed by the need to say substantial things about big issues. We’re facing, after all, the biggest set of pressures faced by any Government since the Second World War.
However, that need takes us directly to the second superficially attractive option. This is to give a very high level, visionary speech about the global challenges facing Britain’s economy and the structural reforms needed to meet them. Hammond would do this well – he’s a serious politician comfortable with the most serious issues.
This must happen but he can’t credibly do so until Theresa May has set out her own thoughts on Britain’s role in the world or it will lack the crucial context – and indeed the credibility that such a Prime Ministerial speech will provide. May is seriously late with this speech and the ground is shifting beneath her feet as Vote Leave veterans organise. I don’t see how she can give this speech in her first conference outing as Prime Minister, when the outlook must surely be broader.
Hammond’s job at conference must therefore be to put serious economic policy substance behind May’s compelling vision of a meritocracy that particularly helps those that are “just about managing”. There is a need for an economic speech for ordinary families – focusing on things that directly affect their everyday lives. These speeches are surprisingly rare from Tory Chancellors.
That means emphasising personal tax not corporation tax, small business not big business, jobs and growth not inward investment, the Midlands and North not London and the South East, cars not trains, energy costs not energy supply, pensions not trusts, houses not flats.
Clearly, no Chancellor can credibly ignore the macroeconomy at a time like this. It has to be a significant part of Hammond’s speech, but not the defining narrative. If this Government is truly committed to May’s chosen themes, then this is the perfect place to show what that looks like. May and Hammond have to develop this agenda together – May providing the direction, Hammond the substance.