The greatest speech ever delivered by a Tory in Manchester was given by Disraeli in the Free Trade Hall on 3rd April 1872. He spoke to 6,000 people for three hours and 20 minutes, sustained by two bottles of white brandy.
Rishi Sunak drank no brandy, and spoke for only just over an hour, but referred with pride to Disraeli as “the first ethnic minority Prime Minister”, put there by the Conservative Party.
Disraeli is the most astonishing romantic ever to have entered Downing Street, a man who entranced Queen Victoria, and millions of her subjects, by presenting the humdrum business of parliamentary government as a glittering medieval pageant.
To our surprise, Sunak did something comparable, but in a modern idiom.
He offered us politics as a rom-com, a genre which demands an implausible transformation. The hero is a no-hoper, people look down on him and he is never going to get the girl.
Sunak, we discovered, has already got the girl! Here she was on stage, looking shy and pretty and very much in love. Akshata Murty confirmed that her husband loves cheesy rom-coms, but said even this has not put her off him, for he has honesty and integrity and is her best friend.
On came Sunak. The pundits and the pollsters have told him he can’t win the general election, and he admitted that in the wider public there is “an exhaustion with politics”, an “apathy” which Labour is betting will carry it into power.
But how cheerful Sunak looked! In vain one strove to detect some hint that he admits the hopelessness of his position.
He did concede that our country can look back on 30 years of underperformance. What a useful period of time 30 years is, also used by Suella Braverman in her conference speech, for by carrying us back to 1993 it excludes the great Margaret Thatcher, toppled in 1990, and includes every Conservative leader from John Major to Liz Truss, muddling them up with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in what might be called an age of mediocrity.
“I will lead in a different way,” Sunak said. “Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”
He said inflation is the biggest destroyer of all, and revealed he was quoting Thatcher. She, we were meant to realise, is the leader whose work he is continuing. The rom-com is, remember, a form founded on implausibility, on the delightful fantasy that an ordinary man can perform great deeds, defeat his mighty but over-confident opponents and become the hero of the hour.
Brexit, Sunak declared, was not just a vote to leave the EU, “it was a vote to change”, and “our opponents will try to neuter this change.”
Sir Keir Starmer yearns to hold us back: “He is the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end.”
And “HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus”. Sunak set about smashing that consensus: we must “have the courage to change direction”.
He promised to “reinvest every single penny” of the £36 billion saved by cancelling HS2, and named a long list of tempting projects which can now be funded.
If one wished to be unkind, one might call this a long list of electoral bribes. It has the valuable effect, from Sunak’s point of view, of creating a large number of potential beneficiaries who might even show their gratitude at the ballot box.
“And I say this to Andy Street, a man I have huge admiration and respect for”, Sunak went on, that there will be “more capacity between Birmingham and Manchester”, and many wonderful improvements within the Midlands too.
All this garnered solid applause. Conservatives in the hall were enjoying Sunak’s speech. He spoke in a managerial tone about taking “the right decisions not the easy ones” for the National Health Service.
And he was very down on smoking, while not saying one word about obesity, which could also bankrupt the NHS, or about housing, on which there is as yet no evidence of long-term decisions for a brighter future.
Sunak took a firm stand on illegal immigration: “It is non-negotiable that you the British people decide who comes here and not criminal gangs.”
We are, he admitted, “by no means where we want to be”, but we shall be “once flights start going regularly to Rwanda”.
This was an old-fashioned rom-com, scripted to appeal to a traditional audience: “A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” as Sunak put it.
He was moving now towards the happy ending: “We know that what matters is that love cascades down the generations,” he declared in a passage about families.
And then it was over. The audience loved it, and Mr and Mrs Sunak moved off between crowds of cheering well-wishers. Will this attractive young couple live happily ever after? Who knows, but they had just delivered what was in its way a perfect performance.