by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 5
January 2023
Reaction
11:20

Rishi Sunak needs a new speechwriter 

Over-written and over-edited, the PM's speeches keep falling flat
by Peter Franklin
Stop looking down. Credit: Getty

Though I’ve written speeches for senior politicians before — and enjoyed it — I wouldn’t want to write for Rishi Sunak.

That’s not because I disapprove of him. As a Prime Minister, he’s a huge improvement on his dysfunctional predecessors. Nevertheless, I couldn’t work for a man who could deliver the speech he gave yesterday without choking on it.


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


A big part of the problem was the platitudinous, patronising tone. As James Sean Dickson says today for UnHerd it was “narrated like an adult reading a storybook to a child”. This isn’t the first time that Rishi’s turned up the cringe dial. If you can bear it, there are other examples here and here.

Why do his comms people allow this? Our current PM is not an awkward performer like Liz Truss was. When he’s talking to people in person and speaking off-the-cuff, he’s a natural — there’s no need to force him into contrived poses and weird intonations. 

On the other hand, there’s only so much you can do with a terrible speech. Even the most gifted performer can come unstuck with poor material — as Boris Johnson did with his infamous Peppa Pig speech.  

So, what was so bad about the Sunak speech? Well, unlike Johnson’s sketchier efforts, it doesn’t read as if it had been dashed off at the last moment. In fact, it shows the tell-tale signs of being over-written and over-edited. 

Take the following passage: “…the truth is, no government, no Prime Minister, can change a country by force of will or diktat alone… Real change isn’t provided – it’s created. It’s not given – it’s demanded. Not granted – but invented.”

Rhythmically this works nicely. On the other hand, it’s meaningless drivel. It gives us three contrasts between change being “provided” and “created”, “given” and “demanded”, “granted” and “invented”. But these aren’t opposites — and if there’s some more subtle distinction between each pairing it isn’t explained. 

What’s more the overarching point — that governments cannot change a country by “force of will or diktat alone” — is only trivially correct. From Clement Attlee’s to Margaret Thatcher’s, governments can and have changed this country by force of will. Obviously, people need to respond to reform, but there’s no doubt as to what is the cause and what is the effect. 

It’s about time that ministers — and especially Conservative ministers — spoke as if they were conscious of the power in their hands. After all, government directly controls half the economy and regulates the other half. So enough with speeches telling us how we should feel about the state we’re in, what we want to hear from our Prime Minister is what he intends to do about it. 

But isn’t that exactly what Sunak told us? He’s going to reduce inflation, increase growth and all the rest of it. His five pledges are splashed across the front pages this morning so, surely, the speech did its job. 

Well, no, it didn’t. The proof of that is a test that should be applied to all political speeches, which is to take the key points and then argue the opposite case. For instance, could Sunak have argued for higher inflation and lower growth? Obviously not, which means that the speech he did give was essentially pointless. 

The same goes for its supposed conservative content, like the references to hard work, supportive families and pride in place. Again, it’s impossible to imagine him making the case for laziness, abandonment and vandalism. So, again, what he actually said was meaningless.

And that’s the thing with speeches: you’ve actually got to say something. 

Join the discussion


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
7 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
24 days ago

Simply reading out a wish list makes it become material reality in the (post) modern political world.

Last edited 24 days ago by Andrew Raiment
Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
24 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

Exactly, boosterism defined.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
24 days ago

The speech was nothing more than a follow-up to his condescending performances during the leadership election campaign, when he performed so poorly that even someone as wooden as Truss came across as more convincing.
I don’t doubt his sincerity or his wish to turn around the narrative, both in his party and in the country. Keir Starmer’s task just got even easier though. Another dreadfully wooden performer, but at least the sanctimony doesn’t have a fixed grin, the death-rictus of corporatism.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
24 days ago

Maybe chatGPT wrote it.

Paul T
Paul T
24 days ago

Eh? I don’t agree with the author at all. The counterpoints in the speech about how real change is accomplished: provided/created, given/demanded, granted/invented may not be semantic opposites but they do define contrasting perspectives. This section is not meaningless drivel at all. It perfectly well sets out a philosophical position that change happens when people contribute and make it happen, not when they sit back and leave it to others.
Could Sunak have argued for higher inflation and lower growth? Well, plenty of people do argue for lower growth. There is a powerful environmental movement that claims the industrial revolution was a retrograde step and wants us all to go back to the pigsty. Could Sunak have made the case for laziness, abandonment and vandalism? No, but forces in society do: the ‘quiet quitting’ brigade; the queer theorists who want to destroy the family; the statue topplers.
The speech is light on policy and it would hardly motivate you to storm the barricades but it sets out a rational and meaningful philosophical position. Sunak’s problem isn’t lack of clarity. His problem is that the removal of individual agency and initiative, the extension of handout culture, the march of wokeness, the punishment of hard work have all happened in recent years on the watch of Rishi Sunak.

j watson
j watson
24 days ago

Yep, Author is right. But why so bad?
The paucity of policy material to work with? An increasing lack of confidence throughout the No.10 team? Poor calibre advisors? Deliberate strategy to try and anaesthetise us for a period? At least the latter would be a strategy!
Author mentions Atlee. A very transformative record at a very challenging time, but not known for the magnetism of his speeches (the odd bit of quick wittedness, esp vis a vis WSC, aside). But of course was a less demanding media environment. Atlee though was ok with letting others take the limelight – Bevan, Bevin, Morrison etc, so his Govt was not without performance speakers in key Policy areas. Maybe that’s where Sunak needs to go, but who is there and what will they be saying that goes beyond a slogan?.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
24 days ago

He doesn’t need a new speechwriter, he needs some new ideas. Sunak is Britain’s answer to Italy’s Draghi. A WEF imposition with no mandate, no charisma and no vision beyond an aspiration for technocratic competence.
We are facing huge problems at home and abroad but Sunak and his Government give no indication that they understand any of them. In many cases his policies are actively making things worse.