Landing a washing machine on a comet: The story of a party leader’s speech

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In my head this is what the Rosetta mission looked like.

Today is Tim Farron’s first party conference speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats. As I had the privilege of helping Nick Clegg with his final party conference leader’s speech, it seems like a good day to tell you about it.

It started on Wednesday 12 November 2014, when mankind did something incredible. For two decades, a group of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency had been quietly attempting something audacious. They were planning and executing the Rosetta mission: the voyage of a tiny unmanned space probe that would wind its way through our solar system in the hope of landing on, and sending back data from, a comet that was travelling at more than 100,000 kilometres per hour.

Imagine what all that must have involved. First, someone spotted the comet, billions of miles away, and had the crazy idea of trying to send something to it so that we could all learn more about the make-up of our solar system. Then, they and their colleagues must have convinced a whole bunch of very serious, straight-faced people in suits, across a host of European countries, that this mission would be worth the megabucks it would inevitably cost. Then, they spent years designing a probe and other gizmos and plotting routes through space to get it there. Then, they had to launch it. Then, they had to wait and wait and wait as it wound its way through space. Then, it had to orbit a rock hurtling through space and land on the bloody thing. In the autumn of 2014, they did it. Amazing.

I watched the final part of this saga unfold on the BBC News Channel from my office in 10 Downing Street. I was transfixed. I really had a lot of other things to be doing, but they all fell by the wayside. I spent the next few days with a spring in my step, boring anyone and everyone about what a remarkable thing had just happened.

I churned out dozens of speeches, articles, quotes and scripts for video clips in the first months of 2015, but I was always aware that there was one centre-piece speech that I needed to prepare for: Nick’s speech to the party’s spring conference in March, which would probably be the biggest and most important speech that I would write for him. So I fretted over it. I wrote an argument and a structure – and first discussed it with Nick the best part of two months before he would deliver it. I wrote a first draft and went through it with him. I scrapped huge amounts and wrote a second draft, which I then scrapped entirely just seconds before I was due to send it to him. It just wasn’t right.

Nick was clear that he wanted to use the conference speech, first and foremost, to set out an optimistic vision for what Britain could become and then to contrast the inherent optimism of liberals with the rising tide of fearmongering and nationalism. Yet I couldn’t quite articulate it in those first drafts.

Then I thought back to the Rosetta mission and knew immediately how I would set up the speech. I was on the 341 bus at the time, so I started tapping some thoughts into my phone that would become the basis of a new opening section.

The story of the last five years has been a story of rescue at a time of emergency. A story of doing what was necessary in exceptional circumstances. A story of stopping the worst from happening. And we did it. We, the Liberal Democrats, this plucky band of dedicated and passionate campaigners, we did it. So what next?

Last autumn, like much of the last few years, the news was dominated by dark and grisly stories. The threat of war was mounting in Eastern Europe. Atrocities were being committed by terrorists in the Middle East. A legacy of the most horrific abuse was being exposed right here in the United Kingdom, in institutions we thought we could trust. And then there was one day in November when a different kind of story dominated the news.

A small group of scientists and engineers from a host of countries across Europe had spent years tracking a comet the size of a city as it hurtled through space from the edge of the solar system. And on that day in November, as that piece of rock was half a billion kilometres away, travelling faster than a bullet through the vacuum of space, they, we, humanity, landed an object the size of a washing machine on its surface. Of course, because nothing goes 100% to plan, it bounced off and flew back into space, and for a few nervous hours we waited. And then it sent us back a signal. There it was, sat on the surface on an alien rock it had no business being on, further away from where it started than the mind can conceive.

The BBC were filming in the mission control room as the news came through. As the room erupted in cheers and applause, the camera focused on Professor Monica Grady, a scientist from Milton Keynes, who had dedicated nearly two decades of her life to this incredible project. She grabbed the BBC reporter in an ecstatic embrace as tears of joy streamed down her face.

What an amazing thing to have achieved. What an incredible, audacious, optimistic thing to have even dreamt of attempting. What an inspiring moment for thousands of young girls and boys to witness. What a beautiful, hopeful thing it says about us.

If the last five years were about necessity, I want the next five to be about possibility. If the exam question that faced the last government was: how can you rescue the economy? The question that faces us now is: what next? What sort of Britain will we become?

Britain is an open-hearted, open-minded, optimistic country. She is full of decent, hard-working, loyal people. She buzzes with creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism. There is nowhere in the world like this country. Nowhere as plucky. Nowhere as hopeful. Nowhere as welcoming. We are a small island but we are a big, big country. The legacy of the financial crisis, the aftershocks of that brush with catastrophe, they’ve shaken us. But we take our hits on the chin. When we get knocked down, we get up, brush ourselves off and carry on. In tough times, it is natural to fear the worst. But now it is time to dream of the best.

I was quite pleased with that. And, luckily, so was Nick. I was also particularly pleased because it allowed me to continue entertaining myself with my personal in joke, which was that I would attempt to crowbar as many references to my home town of Milton Keynes into Nick’s speeches as I possibly could. Not an easy job given neither of the parliamentary seats in the #cityofdreams were targets for us. He totally called me out on it, but he loved the Professor Grady story so much that he went with it anyway.

From that point on, the speech effectively wrote itself. It would start with this story of hope amid the gloom, and then segue into a section where Nick would set out the sort of Britain that he wanted us to become in 2020 and how he proposed we get there, linking the big picture vision with the policies that we would pursue to deliver it. Then he would set out the twin threats to that vision, from both economic instability and the rise of populism and nationalism. He would then argue that the only way to counter that and protect that optimistic vision was through liberalism, giving the party its central purpose in the years ahead, before finishing on an upbeat note advising the party to ignore its critics and prove the pollsters wrong. Pre-election conference speech in a nutshell.

It was always good manners and good practice to contact any individuals that a party leader would be citing in a speech in advance, not least to be assured that they weren’t die hard Labour activists who would be straight on Channel Four News to say it was a disgrace. So I had to track down Professor Grady. I got in touch with my school friend Andrew McDermott, who works at the Open University where Professor Grady was based, and he very helpfully dug out some contact details for her. In the first instance I dropped her an email, explaining who I was and that Nick was considering referring to her in a speech. She responded that she was delighted, not least as she was a card-carrying Liberal Democrat. What are the chances of that?

Here’s the full thing.

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