Once again, we start with our usual disclaimer: we love politics, but we are non-political. We work with politicians from different parties throughout the world, so this is piece is about the speech, not the politics.
As Ed Miliband showed in his manifesto launch the previous day, there can be an advantage in low expectations. While the leader of the opposition needed to prove his critics wrong (a strong rhetorical position) David Cameron could only confirm that the presidential style comes naturally to him. Still, the craft of this speech is right up there with the best of his time as leader, and as usual the language reveals a lot about the man.
- Relaxation: we noted in an earlier post how Miliband used the podium to seem relaxed, leaning on it in the same way that Cameron tends to do at the dispatch box. In contrast, Cameron was much more upright during his speech, which puts the emphasis on authority rather than relaxation, illustrating that this manifesto speech is a time to get serious.
- Hands: Cameron uses his hand to reinforce the sense of outrage and indignation, articulating the key points with a repetitive movement. This is most effective when it’s used sparingly.
- Eyes: while Miliband seemed to be very familiar with his speech, Cameron’s delivery is more spontaneous, almost as if he’s encountering it for the first time. It works well for him, reinforcing the sense that government and leadership come naturally to him. Most importantly, he still makes clear eye contact with the camera and with his immediate audience.
Delivery and Structure
By now we are all fairly familiar with Cameron’s ability to deliver a speech. Where this one gains points is in the choice of words. Politicians always choose their words carefully (which is why we so rarely hear them being truly candid) and this speech is a great example of why.
- Personal: in the most effective section, he moves deftly from the political to the personal. The way he repeats ‘for me…’ makes the sentiment seem more intimate and unplanned, almost as if he’s confiding in the audience. It reminds the audience that the prime minister is a person as well as a job, and simultaneously drives home his experience in the role.
- Security: this is the great buzzword for the Tory campaign, so both the verb and the noun are deployed at every opportunity.
- ‘The brink’: intriguingly, this is a word with negative connotations (‘OED: The edge, margin, or border of a steep place, such as one might fall over, e.g. the ‘brink’ of a precipice, chasm, pit, ditch, grave’), but Cameron uses it repeatedly to describe being on the brink of something positive. It’s subtle, as the sentiment appeals to the audience’s optimism, while the word discreetly reminds the audience of the danger of the opposite.
- ‘And yes’: this is one of Cameron’s favourite ways of introducing a point. The combination of the conjunction and the affirmation makes the audience want to nod even before they’ve heard the point. It’s even more effective because he tends to use it when addressing a point of contention.
- Compound adjectives: when mocking the Labour party, the list of insults mostly combine a noun and a past participle (‘debt-addicted’, ‘welfare-dependent’ ). The twin structure gives more force to the attack, and it’s no surprise that the one major theme for the Tory alternative appears in exactly the same structure: ‘property-owning’.
- Contrast: like most of the speeches in this campaign, the key objective is to emphasise the difference between the two leaders, so Cameron is constantly using antithesis to balance ‘strong leadership’ against ‘weakness’, and ‘competence’ against ‘chaos’. We also get regular reminders that it’s ‘my cabinet table’ and ‘my team’ – the voice of secure, experienced leadership.
- Britain: Cameron likes to personify Britain with a female pronoun, ‘back on her feet’, which seems to be aiming at unity as well as fuzzy patriotism.
Although this was an undeniably competent performance, there was room for improvement. Mostly, this comes down to Cameron’s script rather than his delivery.
- Predictable: in length, structure, themes and language, this speech could have been written in advance by anyone who has heard a Cameron speech before. Would he have achieved more of an impact if he had tried to confound expectations, like his opponent?
- Low ambition: despite his considerable skill as a speaker, Cameron always remains in his comfort zone of shrewd pragmatism and firm language. His speeches have none of the rhetorical daring or poetry that we tend to see across the Atlantic. He campaigns in prose and he governs in prose.
David Cameron: Overall
A clever but safe manifesto launch. Considering the attention the Miliband speech gained for confounding expectations, perhaps it would have been more effective for Cameron to take a risk?