Conservative Party Conference: Strong on laughter and Labour bashing

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
TORIES TOOK time off from their squabbles to put on a public display of unity for William Hague's big day yesterday.

For some reason which I don't understand, the traditional end-of-conference slot for the party leader's speech has been scrapped. The occasion has been moved to the previous afternoon and was sandwiched in between a debate on defence and a "topical motion".

There was a 10-minute gap before the conference chairman introduced Mr Hague, who emerged from the wings with little of the razzmatazz or video music presentation which worked Tony Blair's audience into a frenzy last week. Gone were the easy chairs and party grandees, including Baroness Thatcher, who were consigned to the front row.

Mr Hague started well ("Ted and Margaret came on to the platform for our debate on Europe and found instant agreement: they both hated those chairs") and in the early passages he got quick bursts of applause.

Given the difficult hand he has been dealt, and the even more difficult hand he inflicted on himself with the Euro ballot, he played the early cards well. The audience liked his jibes against Tony Blair: "You know the best thing about my job? Wednesdays at 3pm. Prime Minister's questions. The most disappointing thing about my job? Prime Minister's answers."

His voice rasps and occasionally has a chainsaw grind but the Yorkshire vowels have a healthy classlessness which has the potential to engage his listeners. Ironically, the distinctive drone may be the way in which the public will begin to recognise his existence.

There were no policy specifics and most of the speech was devoted to generalities. At this stage in the Tory game, given the arguments they have had over just the one "settled" policy on Europe, no one should blame Mr Hague for taking time to formulate new policies elsewhere.

He mocked the Prime Minister's talk of the Third Way. This was summed up as "having it every way". When he gets animated he tends to speed up, still on the same monotone, without actually changing gear. He ground uphill with numerous examples of Labour facing contrary directions but he never quite got into overdrive.

The speech was long on Labour bashing and good laughs came from his gags on "people's government, people's this and people's that, as if we were all going to China". When he has a joke he keeps it running and even a minute later he was still talking about over-promoted cronies paid for "by the people's money".

Unable to make grand policy announcements, like John Major's infamous conference speech when he called for more toilets at motorway service stations, Mr Hague had to spend disproportionate time on abstract concepts. They sounded good but did not amount to anything. The main theme was described as "The British Way". This turned out to be "The Conservative Way" or "Our Way".

The usual Tory buzz words of freedom, less bureaucracy, smaller government and bigger citizens were thrown into the Yorkshire batter mix. Other ingredients included former famous Tory names. Pinches of Disraeli, Salisbury, Chamberlain (Joe), Churchill and Major were added to large spoonfuls of Thatcher.

The mix had the potential to rise but went flat towards the end. As any good cook knows, Yorkshire puddings must go into hot fat and hot ovens. They should not be cooked for too long: this was in the oven for over an hour.

A combination of little build up beforehand and no rousing rendition of Land of Hope and Glory, which was the customary way to send Mrs Thatcher happily on her way, meant that the audience, while loyal and enthusiastic, was not ecstatic.

It was OK but not great.