Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.
Writing a good speech is bloody difficult. I used to pen them for a living, and can attest that it is not a trade you should enter if you are lacking in confidence or have serious issues of self-doubt.
Although not followed closely by the voting public, for the party bubble the leader’s speech at conference can make a significant difference to the weather. This year, its importance is greater than most, given the febrile nature of Westminster debate and how so much hinges on what politicians do next.
To land her speech on Wednesday, the Prime Minister will need to make sure her text is brimming with light and shade, surprising turns – and moments of emotional resonance. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, she has a talented speechwriting team who can provide a text that sparkles. Again contrary to popular myth, if she feels sufficiently prepared, then she is more than capable of putting in a high energy performance.
But the real test for Theresa May on Wednesday will not be on style. It will be on substance. With the benefit only of hindsight, this is where her outing at Conference 2016, her first as leader, fell short.
Both speeches she gave at that conference – on Brexit and domestic policy – were beautifully written (not by me). And they went down a blinder in the hall. However, they were strategically unwise, and have caused more problems for the Conservative Party than they solved.
Beyond Brexit, the macro-political environment the Prime Minister is facing is the same as that of all moderate politicians today. The displacing effects of global twenty-first century capitalism mean that trust in the settled model of political economy is low. However, an era of instant communications means that the demand for quick solutions is high. Into this dynamic, the demagogue has stepped with promises of a perfect world – if only we are so brave as to vote for it. Although it is not politically correct to say so, and you deny their legitimacy at your peril, there are traces of this in the success of the Leave campaign and Jeremy Corbyn.
The Conservative Party will never be able to compete on these terms. We believe that change is good – and reinvigoration of tried and tested systems is often needed. But our method is moderation: the clue is in our name. We are sceptical of textbook ideology because life is more complicated than that. We abhor disruptive moments, because they put the things we value most at risk. Margaret Thatcher, often mischaracterised as an ideologue, understood this better than anyone when she said in 1979 that conservatism “is not a recipe for an easy or a perfect life. But it sets out a broad framework for the recovery of our country, based not on dogma, but on reason and on common sense”.
That is how Conservatives win elections. We give credit to the intelligence of the electorate and deliver sound economic management with measurable impacts on jobs, wages and public services. We give people the tools to build a better life – rather than promise utopia which is not in our gift to deliver. Yes, it’s boring. But it has proven a durable formula for human progress.
That moderation was missing from May’s conference speeches in 2016. On Brexit, we were told that leaving the European Union would only be a success if we achieved an absolute return of sovereignty, and that it was a “false dichotomy” to worry about the cost. And on domestic policy, we were told that our economic model was failing millions of ordinary working people and necessitated a lightning bolt “quiet revolution”.
The net effect of the Prime Minister’s words at conference 2016 was to legitimise two things. First, the unrealistic expectations of those calling for the hardest of Brexits when the prose of statecraft is more complicated. Second, the argument of Jeremy Corbyn that the economic system is completely broken and without redemption (which does not stand up to scrutiny, and is politically unwise given we have been in office since 2010). Through this frame, you can better interpret the Prime Minister’s difficulties since calling the 2017 General Election.
So what should the May say this year? Clearly it needs to be more inspiring than “What do we want – incremental change! When do we want it – now!”
I would start with a dose of realism. It will win permission to be heard. Although the decision is one for MPs and members, it is possible that the Prime Minister will not be leading us into a putative election in 2022. She should show measured vulnerability to address this elephant in the room. She serves at the pleasure of the party and the country. She is not interested in doing the job for ego, status or glory. Her only concern, while others shirk, is to do her duty for as long as people are willing to put their faith in her.
She should challenge the party to focus on a slog to the next general election whether under her or a successor. Remind them that while voters might react well in the fierce intensity of a moment to a charlatan, they are wiser than you think. In the long-term, they are still more likely to put their trust someone in who is delivering a consistent economic platform with tangible personal results.
Trust and consistency are the key words here because in the real world results don’t come overnight. That requires honesty. So throw red meat on Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement and transition by all means – but put it in its place. It is an important process to be delivered and respected. But it is not our defining purpose in government. It is not the magical solution to the challenges we face as a country.
The truth is that the Conservative Party need to start focusing attention on the structural economic challenges that really drove the vote to leave and which, perversely, Brexit is masking. The Prime Minister should say this explicitly. These reforms include but are not limited to housing supply, upskilling people for the impact automation is having, continued reforms to education, updating our labour laws, ensuring our tax system is fit for the global digital age – and a managed immigration system that restores a sense of control amongst all this flux. That is how you build on a creditable economic record, but continue to make our party electable.
A lot of water has passed since October 2016 that makes this message difficult to land and feel relevant in the face of the illusory Brexit tiger. But that is what leaders’ speeches are all about. At their best, they can make the political weather, dampen enmity and set a strategic direction that delivers long-term rewards. Just words, of course. But – to paraphrase a former occupant of the big black door – at important moments of history words themselves are deeds.