BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 30 OCT 2009

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If voters went solely on the keynote performances at the 2009 conferences then Gordon Brown would win by some margin. They don’t, and Cameron and his advisors will be relieved.

Of course you could say that coming into the conference season Brown was a goal down going into the last minute of a cup final, and had nothing to lose in letting loose. Cameron had much more at stake and was protecting what he had, almost paralysed into inaction. He also had George Osborne as his warm-up man.

Or it could be that the audience for Brown were cheering the fact that they will soon not be responsible for clearing up the mess we are in, and Cameron’s troops were uneasy about what is to come when they are in power.

Cameron will get over this performance, but my guess is he would give himself no more then three out of ten for this conference speech. That’s both the writing and the delivery. Brown gets an eight.

It might be an idea if Cameron popped back up north and had a word with Alex Ferguson about the last three minutes of the Champions League Final in 1999. Or better still, have a chat with Otto Hitzfeld and see if he’s recovered.

There is no question that Cameron is a good speaker, but he never delivered this year, and if you care to remember he never delivered last year either. Maybe he’s feeling the pressure. Brown is almost certainly a busted flush as PM as he got us into the mess we are in, but more performances like this from both, when the stakes are high, and it might get exciting.

It might be an idea if Cameron popped back up north and had a word with Alex Ferguson about the last three minutes of the Champions League Final in 1999. Or better still, have a chat with Otto Hitzfeld and see if he’s recovered.

There is no question that Cameron is a good speaker, but he never delivered this year, and if you care to remember he never delivered last year either. Maybe he’s feeling the pressure. Brown is almost certainly a busted flush as PM as he got us into the mess we are in, but more performances like this from both, when the stakes are high, and it might get exciting.

The Opening
Cameron was trying to be substantial and serious but just did not pull it off. It was flat and insipid. He seemed unsure of his ground and even of his material, though he read it well enough. It was quite a while before the audience had anything to applaud properly, and even then you got the impression that there was someone out in front holding a cue card.

Brown went for it right from the off with the help of good material in the list of achievements over the past decade: he rode the riff of applause beautifully with impeccable timing. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the habit he has of having the missus introduce him; it is not necessary and makes him look weak. Is she going to be his warm-up during the debates? (see my article Looking for Leadership: Gordon Brown…and Sarah too!).

The Vision Thing: Churchillian or not?
Of course when Churchill was inspiring a nation, a continent, and another continent, to greatness he was a one party political orator and neither Cameron nor Brown had that luxury. Broadly speaking, Brown was preaching intervention and Cameron was not, with his attack on “Big Government”. It seems that this is the start of a clear difference between the parties.

In political terms it’s a case of what your political ideology is, but for me in terms of the oratory it’s about who you believe in, based on what they say.
This was not Cameron’s day. Purely on this evidence Cameron’s closest advisors will be telling him to up his game, and telling his speechwriters that they need sharper pencils. The early metaphor about the steep climb but with a nice view from the summit was trite and amateurish, as well as being unconvincingly delivered. The “Big Government” mantra was I think an attempt to get some coherence, consistency and a theme going through the speech, but he never got into a groove that allowed the hall to be swept along with any kind of enthusiasm.

Brown was right on the mark for the occasion. He was in the groove from beginning to end and provided some good phrases like “markets need morals” and “the many, not the few” ,along with a number of punchy lists and neat contrasts between Labour and the Conservatives in neat little phrases such as “the hard working majority… the few”, “jobs saved… doing nothing” and “intervening… letting banks go bust”.

Delivery: Scraping Them Off The Ceiling
When it comes to delivery, sometimes the gods are not with you. It’s about being in the moment, trusting yourself and letting your technique take care of itself. Part of that is being confident in what you are delivering and in the message behind it. On this evidence Brown is the conviction politician who passionately believes in his future vision, and Cameron is not so sure.

Now this might not be the case, but Brown had his audience right with him for an hour and Cameron didn’t. You might want to look at the fact that Brown got off to a barnstorming start - which was not accidental and he should buy his writers a pint for that - and Cameron seemed to lose whatever momentum had been built beforehand with an insipid opening. Cameron’s one standing ovation seemed as much in sympathy as anything else. It is interesting to note that when Cameron the politician is criticised it is often about conviction, consistency and authenticity: on the evidence of this keynote he still has much to prove.

(Of course it’s empathy and warmth and listening that is levelled at Brown, so his wife comes on at the beginning and tells us he has all these qualities in spades).

For me it was a combination of Brown having better material on the day than Cameron, and being more up for it when it came to standing behind the lectern. Lots of things can contribute to that. But, bottom line, Cameron delivered a three for energy, and Brown a nine even though Brown did stumble over quite a few words, especially in the first ten to fifteen minutes.

Humour
Cameron never bothered, maybe because there was a humour moratorium to go along with the ban on champagne; maybe he took his cue from George Osborne, the least funny Chancellor in living memory, while Brown had Peter Perfect as his scene-setter; or maybe his writers are just not good enough.

If it was a deliberate decision because these are serious times then we are in for a long, miserable and serious time. Cameron could do worse than look to Churchill’s speech to a joint session of Congress in the United States to see that humour can be used in pretty much any context, if you are clever enough.

Brown had some laugh-out-loud humour, with the line about the “special relationship” between him and Peter Perfect being as strong as ever after his recent visit to the USA.

Humour energises the audience and rewards them for their attendance and forbearance. It was a big miss for Cameron not to have some good laugh lines. As Churchill said, “a joke’s a very serious thing.”

Making The Emotional Connection
Both Cameron and Brown used stories and personal examples to hammer home points and help elucidate their strategic vision. Brown has never been very good at this and seems uncomfortable and this should have been where Cameron, marketing man that he was, wins hands down. But again Brown seemed the more at ease, the more authentic when he spoke about his personal beliefs, his past and the stories he has collected over the years.

This is about the writing, although delivery is important. I mentioned earlier that Cameron’s “view from the summit” line was not great. He also seemed to be keeping all of us at more of a distance than Brown - quite a feat when you think about it - and not really letting us near him.

When he got really angry about poverty he was neither passionate nor convincing and I wonder how many swing voters really believed the piece about “the poorest children going to the best schools”. How many outside the hall, or even inside, were convinced by “it’s not just about the quantity of money but the quality of life” line when neither he nor his Chancellor have ever had to worry about the former? Authenticity is key when you are delivering your vision, and we do like to see and hear conviction. Like them or not, Thatcher, Blair, Clinton and Obama are conviction politicians. Cameron will need top show us he is, too.

So Cameron appeared strangely detached, Brown warmer and more human. Now that is the measure of a poor performance by the Tory leader.

The Close
In the end Cameron came back to his summit metaphor, where the view will be “worth it”. It was not exactly the mountain top that overlooks the promised land. There was a reminder that he will rid us of “Big Government” too. The close was low key and understated, just like the rest of the speech. I imagine that he wanted to be seen as being a serious man for serious times, but there is a difference between seriousness and gravitas. We need to see some more of the latter from this fresh faced politician who has the prescription and the medicine for all our coming ills.

Brown’s peroration essentially lasted for the last ten minutes of his hour, and I am sure that he is very pleased with it. He used the successes of the past to look to the future; gave the Conservatives a kicking and contrasted Labour’s fundamental differences; used repetition of “we can” and the like to create cadence; quoted some poetry about dreaming big, not small; and set up the audience to give him a standing ovation at the end.

…Nick Clegg did okay at the Liberal Democrats conference. Probably should have worn a tie and stood behind a lectern, though…

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