From the sublime to the ridiculous: Theresa May’s big speeches

Western Mail comment piece, June 4th, 2019

Voice cracking with emotion outside 10 Downing Street, Theresa May announced her resignation date as Prime Minister almost five years to the day that she gave one of the most electrifying speeches in recent British political history. And yet that 2014 address to the Police Federation couldn’t have seemed further away as the nation watched, conflicted and divided, a beaten Mrs May preparing to leave the stage. What started with a bang, ended with a whimper.

I cannot think of a British Prime Minister in my lifetime for whom the success and failures of their key-note speeches has more dramatically shaped their leadership.Before securing the top job, Mrs May’s rise to prominence came on the back of not one, but two incredibly brave speeches in which she took on the audiences sat in-front of her. The Police Federation speech, made as Home Secretary, is one I often refer to in training sessions as an example of how to use a speech to successfully take a risk.

“It is not enough to mouth platitudes about a few bad apples. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed.” Police Federation Conference, 2014

She used high office to call out unacceptable behaviour – corruption, racism and prejudice inside the police force that for too long had been excused as the fault of a “few bad apples”. She arrived to polite applause, left to stony silence, but the point had been hammered home.

Over a decade earlier, she shocked another audience by telling the Conservative Conference in Bournemouth that their “nasty party” image had to change – and called for an overhaul in the party’s approach to politics. It was, or should have been, as iconic for the Tories as Neil Kinnock’s anti-militant speech was in 1985. The leopard print shoes, which showed she wasn’t afraid of a bit of stagecraft, and that “nasty party” line may have been the things that people remember – but go back and read the rest of the speech. It is brave, forthright, and thrilling – and looking at politics today, incredibly prescient.

The last great speech she made came on the day she took office as Prime Minister. If you look at that text, there are sections that would resonate with voters from every political party. That is the hallmark of a party leader becoming a national leader – they must embody the hopes and dreams of an entire country, not a single party, still less just a sect of that party. May used the traditional Tory theme of unionism to springboard into something new – a desire for a united country in which inequality and injustice could be vanquished, and where people “just about managing” could get a fairer shake of the dice.

“…we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.” First speech as Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, 2016

Technically it was brilliant too. It had an easy rhythm, lovely pace, a simple theme, quotable soundbites. Here was a speaker with a mission, in absolute control.

You never want your first day in a job to be the high watermark of a political career, but it really was all downhill after this moment. You can argue, with some justification, that with such a polarised country the task ahead was almost impossible – but with every big decision, and every speech, the Prime Minister made her own task even more difficult.

The most prominent of these interventions was the Lancaster House speech in January 2017, where we first heard “no deal is better than a bad deal”. There were enormous problems with this speech, which set out in painstaking detail the government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU.

“So today I want to outline our objectives for the negotiation ahead. Twelve objectives that amount to one big goal: a new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union.” Lancaster House speech, January 2017

Just on a basic technical level, a speech is an awful way to transmit this level of detailed information. Much better to win hearts and minds with oratory, and follow up with a plan in written form. But, secondly and more importantly, the Prime Minister set out a number of red lines too early in the process and boxed herself into a corner from which ultimately the only escape was resignation.

At least Theresa May still looked and sounded like a Prime Minister at this point, but she never really recovered from the humbling 2017 General Election a few months later. The period after that is pockmarked by a number of disastrous set-piece speeches – from the cringe-worthy “dancing queen” to the moment she lost her voice, a Conference stage fell apart, and she was handed a p45 live on stage.

Her final two big speeches showed just how diminished she had become, as a speaker and as a Prime Minister. On March 20, after a string of defeats in the Commons, Theresa May addressed the nation from Downing Street. This was a short, unpleasant – you might even say nasty speech in which she legitimised the notion of Parliamentarians as traitors, betraying the people who elected them. It was a shoddy speech in terms of style, tone and morals. All the bravery had gone and the promised search for unity with which she entered number 10 had completely vanished.

Finally, we had the odd, awful tearful farewell. Let’s leave aside the debate on whether the tears were moving or just weak, and think about some other oddities that exemplify how the Prime Minister had become tone deaf as a public speaker. First there was the list of supposed achievements, that so many people would have associated with failures – the Grenfell public inquiry being the most prominent.

Secondly, she recalled some words of advice she received from the humanitarian hero, Sir Nicholas Winton: “Life depends on compromise.” And yet it was May’s unbending approach that became a hallmark of her leadership.

Finally came the assertion that she was leaving office with “no ill will”. This is a ridiculous thing to say in a resignation speech – not only does it betray the fact that there is indeed an ocean of ill will bubbling up and being supressed, it also shows a staggering lack of humility about the incredible opportunity you are given as Prime Minister.

They say all political careers end in failure, but some are squandered.

In Theresa May, the Conservatives, and the country had a leader and speaker who was capable of so much more than she eventually delivered.

The key quotes from May’s big speeches

“There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.” Conservative Party Conference, Bournemouth, 2002

“It is not enough to mouth platitudes about a few bad apples. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed.” Police Federation Conference, 2014

“…we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.” First speech as Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, 2016

“So today I want to outline our objectives for the negotiation ahead. Twelve objectives that amount to one big goal: a new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union.” Lancaster House speech, January 2017

“So far, Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice. Motion after motion and amendment after amendment have been tabled without Parliament ever deciding what it wants.” Downing Street, 20th March 2019

“I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold – the second female Prime Minister but certainly not the last. I do so with no ill-will…” Resignation speech, Downing Street, 24 May 2019

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Matt Greenough

Former Chief Special Adviser and Speechwriter to the First Minister of Wales. Now run Words Matter, a communications consultancy - https://WordsMatter.uk