What to put in 20-min mix

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Conor Ryan - who used to write David Blunkett's speeches - offers the Education Secretary some conference tips

This weekend, Estelle Morris will put the finishing touches to her first speech to Labour party conference as Education and Skills Secretary. Last year as a minister she had a practice run. But the big speech will need careful balance.

No sooner will her new special advisers Will Cavendish and Chris Boffey have logged on to their computers in Sanctuary Buildings than they will have had to craft this crucial speech. But the final product will be the minister's own.

Having drafted conference speeches for former education secretary David Blunkett from 1993 until last year, I know the process will involve several layers. Obviously, this year's conference will have a different tone, but the essence of the conference speech will not change.

First, you need to get the length right. No more than 20 minutes, Millbank guidance will say. But as a Cabinet minister, Estelle can safely ignore this (Gordon Brown often manages 40). If it's a good speech, the delegates will not mind an extra five minutes, even if it cuts the debate on conference voting procedures.

Second, you must adopt the right tone. This can be tricky because you have many audiences. Teachers expect to be told they are loved: delegates like that too. But parents want to be sure you are not letting up on standards: the media are more interested in that. If you talk tough on discipline, you can probably please everybody, but you will also need to show that you haven't gone soft on standards either.

Third, you need some announcements. During September, special advisers will have agreed with officials to keep key announcements up their sleeves for conference. At least three are needed: one for the Sunday papers, one for the regional evenings (a few million pounds spread across the regions works well here) and a major story for the TV and next day's papers. And you need one more for the PM's speech too - his speechwriters will have been asking every department for sacrifices.

You must mention everybody and every sector. If you leave anybody out, you cause offence. Don't forget to mention nursery teachers and nurses, teachers, heads, classroom assistants, parents and pupils, college and university lecturers and students, employers and trainees. Oh, and I nearly forgot, school governors.

Finally, you need to wrap this up with a few jokes and a couple of soundbites. The former gets the delegates to sit up and listen. The latter may (at least in more peaceful times) allow you to get 20 seconds on the news.

On the day, Estelle and her junior ministers will divvy up breakfast interviews, with the juniors doing Wake Up Wolverhampton, while the Secretary off State takes on Today and national TV. She will normally join the PM for a photo opportunity at a local school (in receipt of government cash) before delivering the finished product.

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