Amid the white heat of the Brexit fallout, Tim observed three impressive oratorical performances
Europe was always going to be David Cameron’s undoing. As soon as he urged his party to get over the issue in 2005, he sowed the seeds of his eventual demise. The Conservatives have been obsessed with Europe since the 1970s. One man wasn’t going to change that, and I suspect Cameron knew that as well as anyone.
That may explain the catch in his voice when he announced his resignation early on Friday morning. With the nation processing one of the most unexpected results in the UK’s electoral history (no one really believed Brexit would prevail, did they? Even Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked shocked at the outcome), the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister gave an eloquent, understated speech that was a model of effective communication.
Like him or loathe him, it’s hard to overstate just what an accomplished performer Cameron is when it comes to the big occasion. Remember that conference speech he gave without notes in 2007 (“It may be a bit messy, but it will be me”)? Or the brilliant “big, open and comprehensive offer” speech to the Lib Dems in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 General Election?
Did you hear his performance on Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday? The one where he magnificently chastised John Humphrys for his aggressive questioning? “If you interrupt me any more, John,” he pointed out, “you’ll be interrupting yourself.”
Oh yes, Cameron is a masterful user of the spoken word. Someone who’s so clever at it you don’t even realise how good he is. But his crafting of phrases, his composure in delivery and his eloquent cadences point to a man who has found his metier, and inhabits it with confidence.
That is why Cameron’s speech was so good. Even non-Tories I have spoken to remarked upon how gutted they felt for the Prime Minister in that moment. How he seemed like a genuinely decent bloke who was trying to do his best for the country he loves. And that was about more than the words he used. It was about the clever way he ordered them, and the even sharper way he delivered them to communicate a message that would evoke sympathy and support, rather than hostility and blame.
It was a similar story with the speech delivered moments later by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, another talented public speaker. Just as the nation was going into full panic mode, Carney stepped forward with reassuring, mellifluous words of calm. “We are prepared for this,” he soothed in his commanding baritone. “We have the reserves to deal with whatever comes our way.” It was like having deep heat applied to a sore muscle – instantly relaxing, a much-needed salve to the histrionics of the world.
As with Cameron’s speech, Carney’s performance was as much about the mode of delivery as the content. He was steady, assured, laid back. A man who we could trust to safeguard our financial future, even in unchartered waters. He got the tone exactly right, and the markets did (for a while, at least) begin to settle.
And so it was left to Boris Johnson, a man renowned for his rhetorical excitability, to deliver the third standout post-Brexit oration in as many hours. The striking thing here was that Boris didn’t do a Boris. Which is to say that there weren’t any references to Greek mythology or obscure classical works in his speech. There were no ad-libbed comical asides, and arm waving was kept to a minimum. It was a sombre, serious, reasonable speech. The speech, as news outlets intimated the following morning, of a statesman. A Prime Minister in waiting.
Say what you like about Johnson and his behaviour since, but he got this speech spot on. The tone, the texture and the delivery were conciliatory, a stark contrast to Nigel Farage’s triumphalism of earlier in the day. If this was the unofficial launch of his campaign to lead the Tory Party, he nailed it.
Whether Johnson becomes our next Prime Minister or not is moot, especially with Theresa May enjoying a bounce in the polls. But there’s one thing you can say with confidence: he knows what it is to deliver an all-important speech, to use words that persuade and inspire, to create an atmosphere by his delivery, to judge the mood of the audience and pitch his message accordingly.
In this respect, at least, he still has common ground with his old school friend and rival David Cameron. And with the help of Mark Carney, they provided a welcome bit of alternative interest amid the Referendum reaction on Friday morning.
Whatever the future of our country, we’ve had a masterclass in the art of communication these last few days. It’s just a shame we didn’t receive it earlier in the campaign.