“It didn’t blow your socks off,” the MP with whom I found myself walking out of Kwasi Kwarteng’s speech remarked.
That was correct. No socks were blown off. The Chancellor of the Exchequer elicited no spontaneous waves of applause.
The best one could say, and the MP said it, was that Kwarteng was “perfectly good”. The Chancellor was lucid but uninspiring. Not a single memorable phrase escaped his lips.
The audience in the large, raked theatre wanted to applaud, but found it hard to do so.
There was a willed quality in their clapping, often a slight pause before it started, and one or two isolated whoops sounded as if they were from planted supporters rather than new converts to the Chancellor’s cause.
He was not helped by a soporific performance delivered shortly before by Simon Clarke, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, who spoke by video link.
This was not a warm-up act but a cool-down, sleep-inducing civics lecture which started with the assertion that “levelling up matters” and ended with a round of polite, perfunctory applause.
It was an insult to assemble perhaps 800 Conservatives and subject them to a talk as dull as this.
Liz Truss and Therese Coffey now entered, smiling perhaps with relief at not having heard Clarke’s talk, and took the seats reserved for them in the front row, between Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, and Chris Philip, the Chief Secretary.
A susurration of camera shutters as their presence was recorded by about 20 photographers – the formalities were being observed – followed by a short video in which we were shown Kwarteng in the traditional garb for a Chancellor when paying a visit to some scene of industry, a white helmet and a yellow jacket.
For a moment we glimpsed him grinning like an eager schoolboy, an engaging moment of naturalness, but a fleeting one.
On the Chancellor strode from the wings, his right hand raised in greeting, and took his place at the lectern. “What a day,” he began. “It has been tough. But no more distractions. We have a plan.”
The problem with the plan, as listeners with greater economic expertise than me remarked afterwards, was that it contained nothing new.
Kwarteng chose the path of understatement. He dared to be dull. Perhaps that was the best way to calm markets, but it was not the best way to raise the spirits of Conservatives.
Some of us regard Kwarteng as a brilliant man. Ten days ago he spoke with intellectual brio in the Commons, and got both himself and the Government into terrible trouble.
So no more brio from Kwarteng. He has gone to the opposite extreme and made himself ordinary. One assumes he has been gagged – Trussed up, one might say – as a condition of remaining in office.
The great conference orators, who are few and far between, can make platitudes sound witty, original, inspiring. Some of them, like Denis Healey when he took on the Labour Conference, fight magnificently for their lives against their own activists.
Kwarteng’s plan for growth, illustrated just above this piece, just sounded flat. When he said that ten days ago – he nearly said ten years, which is probably how it seems to him – he had “caused a little turbulence”, he might, in a Harold Macmillanish way, have managed to make “little local difficulties” sound less serious than they actually were.
He might have cheered people up. But as it was, he seemed to know, as he proceeded, that he was not being himself, and was not connecting with his audience.
Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He fluffed a line, saying that “doing something was simply not an option”, the word “not” obviously missing from the start of this phrase, though some of us in our benighted way rather like the sound of a government that does nothing.
When he spoke of liberalising planning rules in the new investment zones, he got no applause whatever.
There was by now an atmosphere of concern. This felt a bit like listening to a doctor who insists that he knows what needs to be done, but is unable to communicate the essential element of confidence.
A cursory peroration about patriotism, and the speech was over. At a guess, about 60 per cent of those present rose and gave the Chancellor a short standing ovation, but 40 per cent remained seated.
The man sitting in front of me continued to sit, and shook his head in an angry way. The speech had not satisfied him, and had not delighted anyone.
As people drifted away, the mood was almost funereal. Morale had not been restored. But maybe the speech will have gone down better with those who did not listen to it, and just hear that Kwarteng delivered a damp squib rather than a fireworks display.