Philip Hammond’s speech to the Conservative conference was accompanied by the set of circumstances that most ministers have bad dreams about after eating too much cheese. First he was interrupted by two men in military clothing, shouting about defence cuts and fusiliers. ‘I’ll come and talk to you later, let me finish my speech,’ the Defence Secretary said, hopefully. The man didn’t stop, and was escorted from the floor, followed by a cloud of journalists scribbling away and enthusiastic photographers.
Then the giant screens behind Hammond that were beaming two massive shots of his head out across the Manchester Central hall went dead. A few seconds later his microphone cut out too. Hammond kept talking.
When the sound returned, it was in time for Hammond to shout ‘get behind our reservists!’ to the first sincere applause and a good chuckle from delegates. But unbeknown to the minister, the screens behind were by now bright blue, with PANASONIC floating across Hammond’s face.
So it is impressive that Hammond still managed to get a number of clear messages across in his speech. The first was – and you might want to start playing bingo with this phrase – that Britain can do better than Labour. Hammond said:
‘At last week’s conference Ed Balls proclaimed Labour the party of “iron discipline on spending control”. Like the Liberal Democrats are the party of ethical election campaigning. But in their 4 days by the seaside, Balls and his colleagues made billions of pounds of new spending pledges, on top of the £27 billion they had already committed to squandering Britain’s recovery before we’ve even secured it.
‘Same old Labour! And Ed Miliband, pedalling the socialism of the Union Barons that Blair tried so hard to bury. A pseudo-marxist litany of pay policies and price controls, tax hikes and property seizures that would condemn Britain to a re-run of the industrial decay and economic decline we thought we had left behind.
‘But Ed, you got one thing right: Britain can do better. It can do better than going back to the 1970s with you.’
Later, he produced a blank sheet of paper which he waved at delegates and announced was Labour’s defence policy. A number of his colleagues are probably scoring this from their own speeches with furrowed brows.
But Hammond also fancied telling delegates that Britain can do better than the Lib Dems, too, launching the kind of teasing attack that we saw from his Coalition partners at their own conference in Glasgow. He told a story about a suggestion on Trident from ‘Danny from Inverness’, and said:
The kind of woolly thinking that is better suited to sitting on the fence than sitting at the Cabinet table.’
This – as well as Hammond’s response to the continuing dramas around him – provoked a genuine chuckle. It will be interesting to see how many of his colleagues are as keen to attack the Lib Dems with such gusto.