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Danny Kruger

Danny Kruger: Party conference speeches have become a monstrous tradition


It’s only a part of me that’s happy to be in a low-end hotel room half a mile from the secure zone on the penultimate day of conference, typing an article for Conservative Home – rather than on the 4th floor of the Midland Hotel, polishing the leader’s speech and feeling pretty pleased with my status in life.
But then I remember the squalor. The devastated fruit bowls. The debris of coffee cups. The air-conditioned climate, alternately too hot and too cold. The sense of staleness of body and mind.  A wise old hand told me once, in the manner of one passing on a cultic secret, ‘You can’t bring too many clean shirts to conference’.
And worst of all, of course, the speech itself. By today David Cameron’s team will be on draft 15 or 20 of a speech they began in August, and by now thoroughly detest. A dozen – two dozen – people will have seen it, chipped in, suggested changes, additions, deletions, jokes. And they are two dozen people a lot senior to you; they must be humoured, honoured; their jokes must be reverently conveyed into a draft with an exculpating square bracket indicating which witless Cabinet Minister thought it up, lest DC thought it was you.

It is the worst of us that wants to be around great men, and great events, for the sake of it; and the Leader’s speech is the archetype of the great event for the sake of it. Why do it? Why, o why, write it? As we know – like all politicians in fact – David is best without a script.
If only for the sake of the speechwriters, we need to abandon this monstrous tradition and invent a new one – an annual State of the Union address, in Westminster Hall, at the start of each Parliamentary session. The Prime Minister should give the Queen a break and announce the Government’s programme himself.

I like the shift from the seaside to the major cities. Blackpool had its charm, and its memories – the 2003 party conference, Tim Montgomerie and I holed up in the hotel banging out Iain Duncan Smith’s last-ditch speech, while a political storm raged around his leadership and a real storm raged along the seafront – and Bournemouth was glorious on a beautiful day. But give me Manchester, give me Birmingham.

On Monday, on my evening run, I found myself in Ancoats. Here is the Manchester of old – great redbrick hulks, each a city block, the factories whence once this city supplied the world. It has had a long decline, and now is in a strange hiatus: a regeneration is underway, but is stalled. No-one is there: it’s like a film set for an HG Wells dystopia. A lot of shiny hoardings, around silent building sites, look a little tattered. Signs on boarded-up doorways say ‘opening in 2008’. Clearly, we need to get the economy moving again.
A lot of the comment this week has been around growth, and whether the Government is doing enough to make it happen. There is a sense that growth is in conflict with the other agendas dear to David Cameron – social renewal, the environment, supporting families.

There is, of course, a major economic debate to be had here. But I think deeper down we are having an argument which is not economic at all. It’s between liberals and conservatives, the two parents of our party’s tradition, about where the emphasis should be. Should Mr Cameron focus on ‘trusting people’ (to use one soundbite he is fond of) or on  'social responsibility’ (to use another)?

Should we focus on tax cuts, localism, denationalization of public services, personal budgets – the agenda of passing power closer to the individuals who need it? Or should we stress that we’re all in this together, that we need to belong as well as to be free, and that this will involve some top-down determination of how things are done?

The tension is most acute in Michael Gove’s schools revolution. Here is the ‘trusting people’ agenda with rocket-boosters on. And yet the Government is also insisting on stricter teaching methods and more traditional subjects.

Liberalism and conservatism are reconcilable – but only (I would argue) in a social or religious context that understands what order they come in. We need to nurture the values which make liberalism possible, which makes people trustworthy.  Restraint of appetite, respect for tradition and establishment, faithfulness in family and other relationships, deference to age and authority... these hoary notions sustain a liberal society, and a liberal economy for that matter.

Reviving these values is a cultural project as much as a political one, requiring a determined intellectual fightback against the cultural left. But I implore us: let us fight graciously, even gently, giving our enemies the credit of being sincere, intelligent and decent people. I don’t feel the Christian evangelists and the end-is-nighers who haunted the entrance to the conference this week have done the cause much good.
I am proud of lots of things my charity Only Connect (www.oclondon.org) does. But on stage in Manchester yesterday, I nearly cried. Vince Martin and I were interviewed by the policing minister Nick Herbert. Vince was a criminal for 20 years, on and off, mostly on. We met him in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Now, he works with us, going into schools to talk to young people about the mistakes he made and the choices they face. When I told the audience what Vince does now, that he’s working part-time in a gym and doing a degree, and that this year he got married – they cheered.

It didn’t surprise me to see Tories cheering an ex-criminal, but it delighted my soul. Afterwards, Vince and I took 20 minutes to get out of the conference centre because of all the people who wanted to shake his hand, thank him for what he does, and wish him well. I basked in the reflected glory. I left politics for this, and it was worth it.


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