“Long on rhetoric, short on policy content,” seems to have been the harshest criticism which the journalists and think-tankers could come up with of the Prime Minister’s brilliant Conference speech yesterday. If so, then I applaud it even more. The PM should always be the inspirational leader, setting the general course for the great ship of state, but leaving policy matters to individual Secretaries of State who then bear responsibility for their decisions. The PM should not be Presidentially responsible for everything; he should add the glitter, the inspiration, the direction, to those whom he has appointed to do the real work. And yesterday Boris did all of that in spades.
It was a classic Boris speech - funny, self-deprecating, full of literary and classical allusions; much of it a bit incomprehensible because of the speed of its delivery. It is just what the Conference Hall in Manchester wanted to hear; but much more important than that it has also been welcomed by much of the electorate outside of the lefty thinkers inside the M25. People often ask for vision, direction, brilliance. Boris has it, if perhaps his grasp of the finer detail may be something he leaves to others.
In days of Yore the Party Conference was a three-line whip. Anyone with a great political career ahead of them would not dare to miss it. There were true debates; motions passed or defeated; voting slips in our Conference bundles. I stopped going some years ago, as I think have most of my MP and activist colleagues (leaving aside those who have to be there.) It is now much more of an event for the media, for lobby groups and businesses of every kind, and for the very young and ambitious. (The average age at the Tory Conference was about 30 to 35). It is, perhaps for that reason, also an enormous jamboree - 10,000 delegates crammed into every bar and restaurant they can find, carousing the night away, as perhaps I used to do when young and foolish...
The Labour Conference is still a semi-serious event with motions and things called ‘composites’ (what on earth are they?); they try to create the policy direction of the Party as a whole; and tried to muster a little enthusiasm for poor dear Sir Keir Starmer droning on for an hour and a quarter to an emptying hall. He’s a nice enough man, but hardly inspirational. I fear that I cannot quite remember the name of the Lib Dem Leader far less whatever he might have said to his (entirely virtual) Conference the previous week.
Playing hookie from the Conference meant that amongst other things, I was able to attend the lovely funeral service in Bradford-upon-Avon of my old friend and one-time sparring partner, Margaret Purves GC. Margaret stood against me for the Referendum party in the 1997 General Election; but we spent the whole campaign agreeing with each other and have very much kept in touch ever since. It was as a 14-year-old that Margaret won the George Cross for saving two people from drowning; and that strength of character was to stay with her for the rest of her life. Her clarity of vision and thought, her determination and strength were masked by a great sense of humour and huge humanity.
‘Charisma’ is rather a weak characteristic - an easy charm which has been the hallmark of so many PMs – Blair and Cameron most notably. ‘Chutzpah’ is probably equally shared amongst most politicians one way or another. But true character is much rarer commodity – Churchill had it, Thatcher had it - and in my view so does Boris.