Philip Hammond’s speech to Tory conference was deeply frustrating. On the one hand, his diagnosis of the problem—that young people feel the housing market is rigged against them and that property ownership is out of reach for them—is right. But on the other, his speech was woefully short on solutions to this problem.
Hammond devoted most of his address to an attack on Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s left-wing economics. He gave a very decent PPE essay on why their solutions haven’t worked in anytime or place. Though, the problem is the examples cited are either historical—the 1970s—or sound over the top: Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe. But if the Tories want a contemporary example of what can happen with powerful unions holding a Labour administration to ransom, they should point to the Birmingham bin strike. Indeed, the Tories’ reluctance to try and turn this strike in Britain’s second city into a national issue is perplexing.
If Hammond had moved on from his denunciation of Corbyn’s approach, to setting out Tory solutions this could have been a very powerful speech. But instead, it was only a half speech—long on negativity, short on positive answers.
The Tories might want to take on Corbyn by depicting themselves as the safe pair of hands. But this approach isn’t really open to them because of Brexit. Leaving the EU is the most radical change in British affairs in generations and so the Tories can’t just try and be the steady Eddie party. Instead, they need to be bold; making a new case for free markets and breathing fresh life into the property-owning democracy with a massive house building programme.
Hammond’s speech also ensured that the Cabinet tensions over Brexit will continue to be front page news. In a not so coded attack on Boris Johnson, Hammond declared that ‘We must not downplay the difficulties nor underestimate the complexities. This will be one of the most challenging tasks ever undertaken by a peacetime government but with focus and determination and unity, we will succeed.’ Expect the Foreign Secretary to use his speech tomorrow to make the case for optimism about Brexit Britain. Number 10 will need some major domestic policy announcements if the Europe issue is not to dominate the rest of this conference.