“You don’t seem to have written very much down.” So said a BBC journalist towards the end of Philip Hammond’s speech.
It is true that not many lines of my notebook are devoted to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to say. He delivered a lecture on the economic facts of life, which are tremendously important, but not always tremendously exciting.
And that, for Conservatives, is doubtless as it should be. There is a lot to be said for daring to be dull. Most of us are reassured when the person looking after our money is a sober figure.
The other day, Theresa May said in her interview with James Cleverly for The House Magazine: “I’m not a stand-up comedian. I am Prime Minister.”
Hammond too is at his best when he leaves the serious business of telling jokes to other people.
“We are the party of business,” he said at one point, which my BBC neighbour, who has an acute news sense, said was a dig at Boris Johnson, who recently made a disparaging reference to business.
The Chancellor’s speech was punctuated by polite applause which quickly died away. Here was no unbalanced enthusiasm, and had there been any danger of the occasion getting out of hand, Hammond could quickly have damped things down with one of his facts: “Europe remains, by far, our biggest market.”
His promise of a “deal dividend” was itself dampened by his insistence that the Chequers plan is still the one to follow.
Back at my desk in the press room, I found my neighbour, a photographer, setting out on an assignment. His news desk had instructed him to take pictures of sleeping Conservatives.
He returned half an hour later to declare his bag: “Three or four sleepers and a lady doing the crossword.”
At the end of his speech, Hammond delivered a message “to those who will ask if the Conservative Party has the stomach for this fight.”
Here was an echo of the great speech Shakespeare wrote for Henry V to give before the Battle of Agincourt, which included the injunction: “That he which has no stomach to the fight, Let him depart.”
Those who had no stomach for Hammond’s fight had instead gone to sleep.