Comment: Trying hard to sound in charge
A safe speech which saw Cameron emerge victorious from battle with a series of straw men.
By Richard Heller
David Cameron had one overwhelming priority in his Party conference speech: to suggest (in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence) that he was actually in control of the events which would shape this country’s future.
He has good reason to be haunted by the memory of the ERM drama (where he can still be spotted in old footage, as an extra behind Norman Lamont). The then premier, John Major, was never forgiven by voters for looking bewildered, even though the economy went into a long period of recovery.
It is a lesson which David Cameron has clearly taken to heart. Nothing is going right in the economy and there is almost nothing he can do to prevent things going a great deal worse. However, he seems to have calculated that voters will forgive him anything if he maintains an impression of confident and decisive leadership. So the repeated message of this speech was “I’m in charge.”
And it almost worked. He relied heavily on an ancient and spurious but still effective oratorical trick, which is called “fighting the man of straw”. He constantly invented imaginary opponents and wrestled them fearlessly to the ground. Imaginary people who wanted him to walk by the Libyan crisis… who wanted him not to vaccinate Nigerian babies… pessimists in general… ideologues who would not let poor children achieve in education…
Conversely, he identified himself personally with admirable people or policies and made a series of resounding personal pledges. Prime examples were “as long as I am prime minister, we will never join the euro” (this earned his biggest burst of applause from a generally torpid audience in the hall) and “we are the party of the NHS, and as long as I’m here we always will be”. He got away with this, at least in the hall, even though the pledges were hollow. Could anyone imagine him promising to join the euro or even to think about it? Does any modern political leader ever fail to display a passion for the NHS? In fairness, he did make one personal commitment of some daring on gay marriage.
The speech hopped energetically but sometimes uneasily between topics. In one two-minute burst he talked about taxes, the NHS, public sector pensions and helping businesses. Normally, this approach would be poor speechmaking technique which would leave an audience dazed and confused. However, in present circumstances, David Cameron was probably happy to leave all his listeners in such a condition if it stopped them thinking too hard about the economy. It also assisted his aim of suggesting that he was still in control, by enabling him to talk about things where he and his government might be making some difference, rather than awaiting events overseas.
The big weakness of the speech was to fail to give any clear reason for believing in the government’s central economic strategy of cutting the deficit. Here he faced an obvious problem – he had no economic indicators to suggest that the strategy was working (least of all, the deficit itself, which is rising not falling.) He had to fall back on Tony Blair’s formula (it was the right thing to do) but after Tony Blair that formula inspires little belief. He supported his case with a well-worn but inadvisable metaphor about the invisible but essential foundations of a house. This invited the rejoinder that if the foundations are badly planned and badly built the house never gets off the ground.
Although David Cameron did much better than Ed Miliband last week in presenting some clear narrative and images, he still cluttered his speech with political bromides which failed to stir either emotion or belief. “Our plan is to build something new and to build something better,” he said. More than fifty years ago, Peter Sellers brilliantly caricatured this kind of oratory with "we must build but we must build surely”.
Like Ed Miliband, David Cameron fatally muffed his peroration. “Let’s turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity… Let’s see an optimistic future… let’s show the world some fight. Let’s pull together, work together. And together lead Britain to better days.”
With these soggy, shopworn phrases David Cameron failed his audition. As Morecambe and Wise used to say: leave your name, but not with us.
Richard Heller was formerly political adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has been a professional speechwriter for over thirty years and is the author of a standard manual High Impact Speeches (published by Prentice Hall Business). His recent novel The Network contains several examples of good and bad public speeches.
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