Welcome to the Rachel Revolution – where the less you say, the more they love you

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wowed the Labour conference hall with a succession of weary sighs – and the more humdrum she was and the less carried away she got, the louder they clapped, writes Tom Peck

Monday 09 October 2023 19:12 BST
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, that ‘nice, genial, competent but ultimately somewhat dull person you’d expect to bump into the business centre of an airport hotel’
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, that ‘nice, genial, competent but ultimately somewhat dull person you’d expect to bump into the business centre of an airport hotel’ (PA Wire)

Beneath the glare of the spotlights – and in front of a 40ft-wide Union flag – out strode that girl from your year at school whose name you can never quite remember. You know the one, she went out with what’s his name, lived round the corner from whatsherface. What is she called?

Well, she’s called Rachel Reeves, actually, and she’s been keeping herself remarkably busy. Shadow chancellor of the exchequer, it turns out. “The next chancellor of the exchequer”, in fact, if you choose to believe a few thousand people whooping with untrammelled delight in a conference centre in Liverpool, and you’d be very brave not to believe them.

With her navy two-piece and her box-fresh bobcut, Reeves looked every inch the nice, genial, competent but ultimately somewhat dull person you’d expect to bump into the business centre of an airport hotel.

And that is no bad thing. Away from the rolling chaos of politics, the down-to-earth revolution has been going on for a while. Nice, quietly competent people who spend their weekends watching Strictly Come Dancing have been running the show for a decade or more, and politics is finally catching up.

Welcome, in fact, to the Rachel Revolution. Where the more quotidian humdrum you can crowbar in to your every utterance, the louder they’ll clap.

It’s a strange old conference, Labour 2023. They know they stand on the brink of government for the first time in a decade and a half, but they also can’t quite manage to conceal what they also know – that the main reason they’re standing on that brink is because someone got caught wheeling a suitcase of wine into Downing Street.

This is not 1996. They have not been propelled here by a leader of once-in-a-lifetime quality. They do not have the intellectual ballast of those killer mid-Nineties soundbites.

They know they need to give the people a reason to vote for them, but they’re still too scared to do it, just in case they accidentally give some of the other people a reason not to.

“We must show that Labour are ready to rebuild Britain!” she did her best to thunder, at least five times. And she was right, she absolutely must do that, but for 45 rather long minutes, she declined to do so. All of her grand promises had to be qualified with realism. They must not get carried away. And the less carried away she got, which was very not carried away, the more they loved her.

Each of her paragraph-long eviscerations of Tory chaos built to a conclusion that was little more than a weary sigh. Her attacks on Liz Truss were building to the following, and this is verbatim: “I will ensure that fiscal changes will be subject to an independent review from the Office for Budget Responsibility!”

The crowd went wild. They clapped even more when she promised to introduce VAT on private school fees, “and spend that money on the 93 per cent of our children who don’t go to private school!”

Earlier, she’d done a truly wince-inducing gag about Rishi Sunak’s smoking ban, and how there would now be “a shortage of fag packets on which they could work out their next policy”. It turned out to have been nicked from a letter to The Guardian. One suspects it worked rather better there. Not least as you don’t need a fag packet, you barely even need a calculator to work out that if you spend the VAT on private school fees – worth about £1.5bn, or £150-a-year to the country’s roughly 10m school children – it might not make all that much difference.

Reeves’ biggest ovation was for her promise to create a “Covid fraud commissioner”, whose job would be to pursue and to claw back some of the billions lost to Covid fraud that Rishi Sunak has written off. It’s great politics – but there are a great many civil servants who have reluctantly concluded that most of that money would cost more to pursue than stands a chance of ever being returned. This, it hardly needs to be stated, is not how Britain will be rebuilt.

She promised to “re-wire” Britain. There’d be a new publicly owned company, Great British Energy. But would anything be nationalised? Well, not quite – but “Great British Energy will look to bid in competitive tendering processes!” Rock and roll.

She’s going to “abolish non-dom status and spend the money on the NHS”. The abolition of non-dom status is welcome. It is a copper-bottomed outrage that it still exists. But if you’ve got some time to kill while waiting for your next ambulance, it won’t take you long to work out that the NHS needs a lot more help than that.

She was furiously angry about the scrapping of HS2. But was she going to unscrap it? No – but there will be “an independent inquiry into HS2, so that lessons can be learnt!” Again, deafening applause. Perhaps they really do think that an independent inquiry can get you from London Euston to Manchester in 55 minutes.

Before her, on stage, the business secretary Jonathan Reynolds had announced that “decarbonisation does not mean deindustrialisation!” And then, with his next breath, he was on the side of “green steel” in Port Talbot. There really isn’t any such thing as green steel. (If you don’t believe me, read Bill Gates’s book about it, which took him just a few dozen private jet flights to write.)

At times, it feels not like the Labour Party Conference but some kind of BBC News channel jamboree, in which every position must be balanced out in real-time with the opposite position. Where we promise to do X, but we won’t do Y. The “well, actually” rally. Rachel Reeves is the word actually made flesh. Labour will do anything for love, but it won’t do that. Whatever that is.

By this point in 1996, Tony Blair had partly moved on psychologically from the challenges of winning the election, which had already been won, and was already worrying about how hard it would be, in government, to do all of the things he wanted to do, and which the public expected of them. If Labour in 2023 have got any bright ideas about how not to underwhelm the millions of people who will vote for them next year, more in desperation than hope, they would be well advised to just come out with them now.

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