After the carnival barking of the phone-hacking saga, the long break beckons for Parliament. For the party leaders, though, there will be little rest. Against the advice of their entourages, who after all want a break from their boss, the three leaders will now spend eight weeks worrying about their conference speeches.
In my former life in Labour politics, I would come back after the break to find Tony Blair surrounded by paper on which he had scribbled fragments of ideas. Over several weeks we added lines and moved the papers around. It was like the party game in which several people draw a funny animal. Hours that will never come back were spent searching for the elusive theme that would magically connect childcare tax credits, the balance sheet rationale for PFI and the case against a narrowly realist conception of foreign policy. The sculptor Jacob Epstein, when he was asked how he got such a good likeness of Ernest Bevin, once said that he took a block of marble and simply chipped away all the bits that didn’t look like Ernest Bevin. That’s what writing a conference speech is like — searching for the point in the rubble.
Most conference speeches disappear with the dying fall of their final phrase. Oratory on the conference platform rarely alters a leader’s fortunes with the public. The anxiety of the preparation is not, however, pointless. We need to refine the cliché that it is imperative to speak to the country as well as to the conference hall. The task, in truth, is to persuade the conference hall that the leader will be attractive to the public, if he is ever granted a proper audience.
That much is the political dividend that Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, can expect from the phone-hacking saga. Mr Miliband has had a good couple of weeks — he has performed better, in fact, than many observers, myself not excepted, thought possible. Yet the rise in Mr Miliband’s approval rating has been a little grudging. He has a long way to go before he can be viewed as an alternative prime minister, but the internal dissenters have been hushed. He has won for himself a brief opportunity to be heard. Does he have a message to convey?
Mr Miliband already has the rudiments of a coherent conference speech. His most recent critique, applied to banking, the government and the Murdoch press in turn, has been about the malign consequences that flow from the irresponsible actions of the privileged. It’s an excellent line of attack in its own right and it suggests a sovereign idea — power and responsibility — that should resonate with the public.
The idea that power lies in the wrong places in Britain — too much with government, too little with the people — solves the basic conundrum of the set-piece political speech, which is: what’s the thread? The balance between freedom of expression and privacy is a question of fundamental importance. So is the question of whether mayors are a better magnet for investment in market towns than shire councils. So is the question of whether any functions of government are better done in Brussels than in Westminster. So is the question of whether disabled people should be given the budget to choose the service they actually want. In every arena, power comes with conditions of responsibility. The theme works for every section of a speech. I’d be inclined to repeat use it every year, for ever.
Writing a credible speech on this basis does pose one big problem, however. Sooner or later, preferably in Liverpool on 27 September, Mr Miliband is going to have to have a Theresa May moment. The Conservative party started its long climb back to electoral acceptability when Mrs May told the 2002 party conference that, out there in the world, people thought of them as ‘the nasty party’. Victory was still eight years distant but that was the first public sign that the party was starting to catch up with the political facts.
There is a raw political truth that now confronts Mr Miliband. The economic recovery barely even merits that description, yet there is, to put it mildly, no clamour for the Miliband-Balls team to run the economy. The Labour plan is clear enough. Argue forcefully that the Chancellor has made a catastrophic growth-defying error of judgment. In due course, the public will realise it has backed a dud and punish the government for its ideologically motivated economic mistake. The downside of clarity is that when something is wrong it’s obviously wrong. Even if Mr Balls turns out have a point, the public has decided that some of the blame attaches to the last government. Employing great arithmetical chicanery, Mr Balls can argue that the public has been duped. Yet even if he is right on the economics (which he’s not, entirely), he’s wrong on the politics. They still think it was your fault, Ed. I’m afraid that shouting louder, as if they were silly foreigners unable to speak English, is not likely to change their mind.
So the only hope for Ed Miliband is a Theresa May moment. We had a good time and we are sorry it cost a bit too much. The banks spent most of the cash, and we did stop that getting worse, but we shouldn’t have spent as much as we did. Sorry. It would fit perfectly into the ‘power and responsibility’ theme — we made a mistake when we were in power because we weren’t as responsible as we should have been. It would electrify the speech and change the trajectory of politics. It won’t happen because it’s not what either Mr Miliband or Mr Balls thinks. But until they think it, power will only ever be something they talk about.
Philip Collins is a former speechwriter for Tony Blair. He now writes for the Times.