In 2005, David Cameron wowed the Tory party faithful in Blackpool by speaking without notes for 20 minutes; it was a bravura performance that was widely credited with winning him the leadership. In 2007, he turned up in Blackpool again to deliver yet another fluent speech without notes to his party’s conference; it was 50 minutes long, helped save his own leadership and prevented Gordon Brown from calling a 'snap' election.
Five years later, Ed Miliband had no need to give a 'make or break' speech - his leadership is not under threat, his party has a double-digit lead in the polls. But he, personally, has dire approval ratings and an undeniable image problem. We’re all familiar with the critique: he is a geek/wonk/nerd/freak/delete-where-applicable; his voice is too nasal; he looks and sounds like a character out of an Aardman Animation. Prime ministerial? Fuggedaboutit. That's been the consensus view - of both the pundits and the public.
So what did Ed do this afternoon? He produced a powerful and passionate 65-minute speech, without notes, to a packed convention centre hall in Manchester. There was not a lectern or autocue in sight. Journalists weren’t offered the traditional mid-speech hard-copy transcript: there wasn’t one to offer. Ed, it seems, was making bits up as he went along.
"I couldn't memorise 6,000 words," says one source close to the Labour leader, "and neither could he." (The fact that hundreds of those words were “one” and “nation” may have helped…)
It is difficult to dispute Harriet Harman’s claim on the BBC, a few minutes ago, that this was “a tour de force of delivery and rhetoric". Miliband’s once-gloomy shadow cabinet look energised and emboldened; the PLP is, slowly, very slowly, starting to warm to this guy.
The cynics will say: where was the meat? What were the new proposals or ideas? Forget content and policy; this wasn’t supposed to be that sort of speech. Predators versus producers? Responsible capitalism? That’s so 2011. This was, in the non-autocued words of the Labour leader himself, a speech about “who I am".
There were references to his refugee father – a favourite of the focus groups, I'm reliably told – and his dinosaur-obsessed son, to his comprehensive education and his admiration for the NHS, to the spirit of the Second World War and the London Olympics. "Inequality," he proclaimed, "matters".
He was warm, engaging, funny, personable; he was, above all else, yes, "human". The geek was nowhere to be seen; "predistribution" didn't get an airing. Some Tory-supporting journalists on Twitter couldn't help but applaud the Labour leader’s fluent delivery – as well as his bold and provocative decision to invoke Benjamin Disraeli’s “one nation” Britain, again and again, in front of a blue background. The words “tank”, “parked” and “lawn” come to mind.
Those of us who followed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, who saw him deliver similar pitches to smaller rooms of both supporters and undecides in the long, hot summer of 2010, knew he had this within him. “That’s the Ed of the leadership election,” one of his closest aides told me, after the speech. “With a bit of added stardust.”
If ever a party leader needed “stardust”, it’s Ed Miliband. But it didn’t need to be this way; he didn’t need to box himself into the “Wallace and Gromit” nerd corner from the get-go in September 2010. Where had he been hiding this speech, this revved-up version of himself?
Lest we forget, as a young cabinet office minister, in 2007, he wowed the party's spring conference with a noteless, shirt sleeved speech, in which he roamed the stage; a former member of Tony Blair's cabinet once told me that was the moment she first started seeing the younger Miliband brother as a potential prime minister.
So will his memorised, notes-free speech today, aired in chunks on the evening news bulletins, be enough to convince the whopping 78% of voters who told ComRes this week that he wasn't prime ministerial enough to give him a second chance? A second look? That, of course, is the $64,000 question.
I suspect, if he sustains the inevitable and well-deserved political ‘momentum’, gets his post-conference poll ‘bounce’ and doesn't retreat back into his Commons bunker, as he did after the Milly Dowler affair, they just might. And if I were Andrew Cooper or Craig Oliver or any of the other aides and advisers around David Cameron, I would be wondering not just whether my boss has a plan to reclaim the “one nation” mantra from the Labour leader in Birmingham next week but whether he has what it takes to do 70 or 75 minutes without notes. The bar has been raised - by Miliband. Rightly or wrongly, the press and the public like such brazen gimmicks.
'Ed Speaks Human'… that now-notorious sound bite from the Labour leadership election of 2010 has a whole new ring to it.
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