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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Maiden Voyages - Tory Conference Edition

5 min read

It began with a turquoise feather duster.

Before Margaret Thatcher had even started her first conference speech as Tory leader in 1975, she grabbed the attention by whipping out a prop and dusting down the podium while she was being introduced. The message was clear: you boys ramble on, I’ll start cleaning up the mess right now. It fitted her chosen image as the housewife who went to war.

A note scribbled on the script set the tone for her: “Relax. Low speaking voice. Not too slow.” The speech lasted 41 minutes, short by recent standards, and would have been shorter still had the audience not applauded so often. The Times described the reaction as “rolling breakers of cheers, shouts and foot-stamping”. If Labour didn’t know they were in a fight, they did now.

And boy did she want one. After a few traditional words of praise for those who went before, including a line for Ted Heath “who brilliantly led the nation into Europe in 1973” that has dated deliciously, Thatcher began to swing her handbag at the government and their philosophy. “They have the usual socialist disease,” she said. “They have run out of other people’s money.” The “S” word was spat again and again, 21 times in all when it appeared only twice in the maiden conference speeches of her seven successors. She spoke out against envy – “it can destroy, it can never build” – and in favour of individual prosperity. Equality, she said, was a bad thing. Restrictive.

It was a vision speech expressed with an eloquence, whether or not you agree with it, that has not been heard since. “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master – these are the British inheritance,” she said. “They are the essence of a free country and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.” When Adam Curtis included this clip in his 2002 BBC documentary series The Century of the Self, he played Jerusalem in the background. If he was mocking the jingoism, her audience weren’t: they had found a new William Blake.

Two years later, a 16-year-old from Rotherham urged Thatcher to stick to her guns. “Half of you may not be here in 30 or 40 years’ time,” William Hague said, “but I will and I want to be free.” In fact, 33 years on he was foreign secretary, but well before then he had his turn as party leader. Hague’s debut speech, seeking to rebuild after the walloping of the 1997 election, was unshowy and short of the laugh lines that were his strength. His theme was compassionate conservatism, saying that all over the country were voluntary groups and charities run by party members. “Don’t tell me the Conservative Party is not a caring party,” he said. It was sincere, but the country was not in the mood to listen.

Voting closed in the next Tory leadership election at midday on September 11, 2001, and within an hour no one was talking about Iain Duncan Smith. His first conference speech, four weeks later, was naturally focused heavily on security and terrorism, “a struggle for civilisation itself”. IDS had better writers than the oratory deserved and there were nice flourishes – “we cannot secure peace by standing aside from war” – but few wanted to hear from the leader of the opposition.

Michael Howard had only two years to get a message across, so he tried in 2004 to distil his speech to 11 words: school discipline, more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, controlled immigration and accountability. Labour won a third term and the leadership changed again. Unlike John Major, who told his first conference as leader that “it is a long road from Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street,” David Cameron could not claim to have risen from hardship, so he played instead on Tiggerish enthusiasm. “If you want to know what I’m all about, I can explain it one word: optimism,” he said near the end of a speech whose sentences were barely longer. “Let sunshine win the day.”

Boris Johnson deployed only two more words for his maiden speech as leader in 2019, but he bashed them in hard and kept bashing at the election two months later. “Get Brexit Done,” he intoned, over and over, in a waffly speech that lacked any hint of philosophical vision and duly delivered an electoral landslide. In a long whinge about Parliament disrupting democracy, he warned: “People feel they are being taken for fools. And there will be grave consequences.” There has been little sign since of any thought beyond those three words.

The Tory leader who came closest to Thatcher in enunciating a philosophy in their first speech was Theresa May in 2016. Hard work, opportunity, fairness and equality were her themes. “We succeed or fail together,” she said. The vicar’s daughter read the Parable of the Staggering Brownlee, citing an Olympic triathlete who stopped to help his brother even though it cost him victory. It was all very Two Little Boys, though she wisely avoided playing them Rolf Harris. “Seize the day,” were her final words. And then she went and lost her majority and the ability to do anything by calling a snap election. Vision is all well and good but as any jazz man will tell you: it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.

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