Rachel Reeves’ autocue

At a recent meeting in Westminster Hall, Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, stands up to speak.

It’s an important speech, so she has an autocue to give her the words to say. Carefully crafted from focus groups in Wigan, fine script will soon be rolling before her eyes.

But, as journalists note with some fascination, the first words on her autocue will not be spoken this morning. Oh no, these will be enacted.

For what the journalists see are the words Strong and Steely.

For a moment, forget the speech. The autocue is first reminding Rachel of the attitude she should adopt. Whatever words follow, they are to be spoken in a strong and steely manner.

‘The look on your face, Rachel; the glint in your eye; the slant of your shoulders, the angle of your jaw – strong and steely does it.’

This isn’t about what she will say to everyone, but how she will be to everyone. She’ll be, well – strong and steely.

There is bleak comedy in the fact that she needs such advice. (Though bleaker still, the words that must have been on every Tory autocue for the last six years: Smile. Lie. Repeat.)

I’m aware, however, I do something similar myself. I don’t have an autocue but I do often take a single word into the day, chosen in a quiet moment before the curtain opens on the show, before anything is said.

The words vary a great deal. It depends on the day; on how I feel. It could be ‘calm’, it could be ‘help!’ – or any number of words in between. This morning it was ‘transparency’.

And as the day unfolds, I’ll check in with myself, come back to the word with which I began. It accompanies me, as might a friend. (We may argue.)

And as with Rachel in Westminster Hall, it’s not about what I am to say, but how I am to be – which is always the bigger story.

And if we can’t think of a word – or maybe can’t imagine it will make any difference even if we do, given the pickle we’re in – then we’ll side with Jacob Astley.

He was a Royalist commander during the English Civil War. On the morning of the Battle of Edgehill, he prayed:

‘O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.’

Sometimes all we can do is throw ourselves on some big mercy. So maybe then, ‘mercy’ is our word for the day. Or perhaps two words, ‘I’m safe’.

On life’s autocue, more important than the words we will say, is who and how we will be.

And once we are set, off we go, quite fearless. After his famous prayer, Major-General Jacob Astley shouted to his men: ‘March on, boys!’

Though ‘strong and steely!’ would have worked as well…