Not all that long ago, when reading pre-trailed announcements in conference speeches, my normal response was to wonder what the big surprise would be on the day. Osborne and Cameron in particular loved to have a rabbit to produce from their hat, with a showmanlike flourish.
Speculating on what’s being held back is a habit I’m having to work hard to break – because each time in the last year that I’ve wondered what the real announcement will be, it’s turned out that there isn’t one, and that the pre-briefed policies were in fact it.
So it was with the Chancellor’s conference speech today. His big cash measure of a Help to Buy boost had been briefed out at the weekend as part of the Prime Minister’s pre-conference publicity, and there wasn’t much else new in his speech.
The task that fell to him, instead, was to take on the role of attack dog – not something that is a natural fit with his public persona, it must be said. He made a decent fist of it all this same, reciting the woes of the 1970s and of the socialist economies praised by Corbyn and McDonnell.
But, as he acknowledged himself: “I have kids; I understand we will not engage them simply by droning on about some previously fought war, “I remember the Winter of Discontent!””
He’s not wrong (though he provided the history lesson all the same).
The 2017 election campaign saw no shortage of warnings about what happened on the 1970s. The problem is not that people haven’t heard the history, but that many voters are willing to flirt with Corbynism regardless.
It has always been this way. Even in 1979 – when the whole electorate had just lived through the worst of it – 36.9 per cent still voted Labour. These were voters who required no history lesson to inform them of the state of the nation.
Of the 2017 electorate, many (including me) weren’t even born when Thatcher came to power. Indeed, it’s notable that the crossover point from Labour to Conservative in 2017 came at the age of 47 – if you were nine years old or above during the Winter of Discontent, you’re likely to vote Conservative today. Any younger, and the odds are that you voted Labour in June.
It would be unwise to believe that past events retain their power even as they become more distant. The further they recede, the less relevant they appear to modern life, and the easier they are to discount or dismiss. For the same reason, the example of Venezuela has limited strength – just like 1979, it is a foreign country which many millions of voters struggle to identify with.
The challenge for the Government is obvious: rather than simply warn of the suffering of the past, they must offer something better for the future. But they have no outright majority of their own with which to legislate, and very little money with which to fund anything that they might want to promise.
To extend Hammond’s historical reference, we should remember that when Margaret Thatcher won power, she famously quoted St Francis of Assisi’s prayer, which ends: “where there is despair, may we bring hope”.
Now there’s a useful lesson from 1979.