In democracies, the currency of politics is persuasion. For a prime minister, this demands a certain facility as a performer. What Ronald Reagan once said of the American Presidency is true of our leaders too. When asked how a B-movie actor could become a serious politician, he said he couldn’t understand how anyone could do the job without acting first. By this score, our new prime minister is one of our worst yet. Unless she improves rapidly and dramatically, it will sink her.
So you don’t have to, I have re-watched a number of her speeches, starting with a gut-wrenchingly awful speech to Conservative party conference in 2014, and ending with a lacklustre address on the day of the Queen’s death.
On watching Liz Truss, you are struck first by how unnatural her delivery is. Most people deliver a speech too fast, but Truss speaks far too slowly. Her delivery is halting and ponderous, with each word arriving so far behind the last they seem independent of one another. Staggering through her speeches, I must admit I watched some at 1.5 times their natural speed. In the process, I was struck by how much they improved.
Speed alone cannot address Truss’ inadequacies in conveying emotion, however. “That is a disgrace,” she declared, with entirely unconvincing severity, at the apex of her 2014 conference speech, after informing her bemused audience that Britain imports two-thirds of its cheese. In all her speeches, Truss has a tendency to over-play her emotions. Over-training might be the cause. A common piece of advice, usually wrongheaded, encourages public speakers to smile. Our prime minister’s smile, which she deploys infrequently and so alarmingly, is about as false as you will ever see.
When asked to name the three most important elements of good rhetoric, the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes said: “delivery, delivery, delivery.” But while Truss is indeed let down by her delivery, the true villain in her case is the script.
Truss’s speeches are stodgy pieces of prose. Her idea of a rousing finale on winning the Conservative Party leadership contest was the dull promise to “deliver, deliver, deliver.” Reaching for a little more grandeur on the steps of Downing Street shortly afterwards, she could only find the hackneyed phrase: “an aspiration nation”. Some of the writing simply screams for a sub-edit. “We can become the modern brilliant Britain that I know we can be,” she promised outside Number 10, a line that could quite happily lose its final six, tautologous words.
Truss’ idea of a rousing finale was the dull promise to ’deliver, deliver, deliver’
All her faults were most obvious, however, in the underpowered address she gave on the death of the Queen. Her delivery was slow and stuttering. The empty smile was present too, with a grin briefly crossing her face as she described the Queen as a “personal inspiration”, while missing the obvious opportunity to elaborate on how, exactly, this was true of this former republican.
Keir Starmer is no orator, but those on the Tory benches will have noted that he rose to the occasion when delivering his own tribute in the House of Commons. More notable still was the performance of Truss’s predecessor, Boris Johnson. His address was funny, moving, and personal, culminating in the memorable declaration that Elizabeth II was “Elizabeth the Great”. Tory MPs would be forgiven for considering the pearl they threw away.
For all this, there are signs that Truss might not be beyond repair. In her first prime minister’s questions, she impressed. She is a far better performer off script than she is on one, which is something that those around her should bear in mind. And while she started slowly in her campaign against Sunak, by the end of the contest she was comfortably the better performer.
The great orators – the Churchills, Kennedys, Obamas and Blairs – are naturally brilliant, but anyone can improve. Theresa May was, for a time, awful. As her surprisingly funny tribute to the Queen in the Commons showed, however, improvements can be dramatic.