Over-written and over-edited, the PM's speeches keep falling flat
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.
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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.