Our best days lie ahead. That’s the message that Theresa May will deliver in her speech to Conservative Party conference today, in addition to announcing the extension of the fuel duty freeze for a ninth consecutive year.
When the pre-briefed extracts arrived in our inboxes, George reminded me of Simon Hoggart’s old rule: if you can’t imagine a political message the other way, it’s meaningless. The best is behind us, says Theresa May. Dark and difficult times lie ahead, announces the Prime Minister. Nope, it doesn’t quite work, does it?
To the extent that this conference has had a message – and really only a generous marker would say it had – it’s been that happy days are here again. The United Kingdom might not be home and dry but we’re through the front door and looking for a towel.
But the problem with this message is it’s not true. The United Kingdom has big and daunting problems on the horizon, and that’s before you start worrying about Brexit. Far from a new era of opportunity and opportunism, the immediate future looks like a decade of travail.
The Conservative Party has done pretty well electorally in adverse economic circumstances in the past. When you remember that voters tend to see them as the party that takes tough decisions and Labour as the party that’s all heart, you can understand why the Tories have done so well when the wolf is at the door.
But the big difference is that in those elections the message was one of the need for belt-tightening and hard choices. Life’s terrible under the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it. It shouldn’t work but it was essentially the message that John Major and David Cameron both ran on in the party’s most recent triumphs.
Theresa May isn’t telling voters that these are tough times and that we need to ready ourselves for tough choices. Just as she refuses to come clean on the loss of autonomy involved in a Norway-style Brexit or the economic damage of a Canada-style Brexit, the PM isn’t going to be candid about how grim the next ten years could be. Her successor – whether it’s Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss or Boris Johnson – might live to regret that.