David Cameron used “leadership” 16 times in his keynote address to the Conservative party conference last week. This prompted me to look at some of Churchill’s oratorical efforts when the chips were down and the stakes were high. I looked at five of his speeches from 1938 to 1946 in a search for the “L” word: “A total and unmitigated defeat”; “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; “Be ye men of valour”; “This was their finest hour”; and “The Iron Curtain”. I’ll tell you how many I found at the end.
But overuse of the L word, in fact using it as some kind of motif, was not really what made this important pitch a missed opportunity. Individual words matter, but if the vision is clear and the direction of travel set, all can be well. Reading over Cameron’s text, however, I find myself unable to get the voice of Little Britain’s chunky blonde teenager Vicky Pollard out of my head, especially as Cameron includes a section on our small nation needing once again to punch above its weight:
‘Yeah but we won the AV referendum; no but Libya; yeah but soldiers come from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and are good; no but the police are nice and good and do a hard job; yeah but rioters are bad and we know what we do with baddies and dead-quick too; no but Dan Thompson has a broom and cleans up and is good and has good friends with brushes; yeah but we’re a small but good country with bulldogs; no but my leadership is about unleashing your leadership; yeah but what does that mean coz I’m not sure but Old Ken Clarke is wrong anyway always and Theresa always has nice shoes; no but marker pens are good on flipcharts and they ban them at my school and I never get any exam marks coz there’s no colour markers and I like pink best it smells; no but cats are nice pets not for foreigners but just some who are nice and have girlfriends; no but it was all Labour’s fault anyway because I saw two Eds Punto-punching Tony Blair’s Balls behind the bike sheds and everyone clapped and cheered but I never and we never and you never because we are nice and good and Mrs Thatcher has never been with William behind there but John and Edwina are nice too and even Ian Duncan Smith is nice and good because he is a quiet man...’
Does that seem unkind? Let me redress the balance a little. As an orator Cameron is no Blair but he is probably the best we have. As Prime Minister he’s done a fair job up to now and we can forgive average delivery here as he did not bring his best game, since he was not in the best of health. But does he, and do his people, actually read this stuff before he stands up to say it? (the pay down your credit-card fiasco suggests not very thoroughly...). I panned Gordon Brown a while ago for his You Tube disaster, deservedly so, because it simply should not have happened. Someone should have looked at the Bobbing Brown through a critical lens and at least said better material and much more practise was needed (in fact, they should have told him not to do it, tying him to a chair if necessary.) Cameron needed someone to cast a really critical eye over what he was delivering; there was just too much stuff and the entire speech lacked cohesion and focus. Any glimpse of a vision was lost as it simply went from one thing to another. Should the Prime Minister of our country be using the biggest pitch of his political year to deliver some spurious drivel about marker pens in schools? Do I have to answer that? (I bet you Eric Pickle’s weight in Chicken Tikka Masala that story is about as accurate as Theresa May’s cat-rap. Both are unbecoming, facile, populist, inaccurate, irrelevant nonsense for such important set-piece presentations. They would only be marginally better if delivered to a bunch of middle-aged bufties at a Daily Mail sponsored mid-afternoon bingo and high-tea event on the fringes).
As well being all over the place, David Cameron is trying too hard: it’s too earnest, too pleading, too managerial. It’s like he is in a job interview after a double espresso and has gone into overdrive when asked why it should be him. Someone needs to tell him he already has the job and it’s time to talk Prime Ministerial. “It’s time to be a leader, Mr Cameron, there is no-one else on the horizon challenging you, from your party or any others, so knock yourself out. Start displaying Leadership rather than just using the word. Cut the crap, the stuff and nonsense, the filler material that has no place in a serious speech by a serious man for serious times. If you want to check how frivolous and flighty your speech was, take my Vicky Pollard narrative above and see how much of it was actually delivered by you, the CEO of our country, while we all watched and waited and anticipated some direction, clarity and vision.”
And what about all that leadership: proud to lead; leadership we need; leadership in the world; leadership/poverty; leadership/tyranny; the right leadership (sic); leadership from government (sic); leadership also from you; that’s leaders; leadership works; my leadership is about unleashing your leadership (pass me a bucket...); show more leadership; support the leadership; our Big Society... That is leadership; this is what we do... It’s called leadership; and together lead Britain back to better days; Strictly Come Leadership; The Biggest Leader; My Big, Fat, Greek, Leadership (I made the last three up...).
What I would have advised? I’d have told him he had done a terrific amount of brainstorming and in front of me was a huge array of material, a big Full-English buffet breakfast of opportunity that we’d be left feeling slightly queasy if we gorged on all of it. I’d say it was a good start, but far too much for the half hour plus he should be up for. You need to leave them wanting more, Dave, I’d say. Take a chill-pill and believe. Believe in better?
Then I’d have asked him what his vision was: what’s your plan Dave, and what do you want us all to think, feel and do when you sit down? Then, with protective gloves and suitable eye protection near at hand, or alternatively a set of pens that don’t have dangerous solvents in them, I’d get my marker pens out and start redacting. There would be a lot of redacting.
Oh, and Churchill? In those five speeches, spanning the entirety of the Second World War, he does not use the word ‘leadership’ once…
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