One of the things Cameron and Obama have in common is that they both owe their rapid political ascent to a single, shortish speech. Obama gave his in 2004 at the Democratic Convention in Boston, where he deftly managed to combine his unusual personal history with a vision of a post-partisan America, and went in one evening from being a promising state senator to a man widely regarded as a future president. Cameron gave his at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool a year later. It wasn’t a patch on Obama’s but it was fluent, plausible, and unapologetic about being a Conservative – and delivered without notes. What made it appear a triumph was the speech given the next day by David Davis, Cameron’s main rival for the Tory Party leadership and the man long considered the favourite to succeed Michael Howard. Davis flopped. He spoke woodenly from behind a lectern without any of Cameron’s natural ease, looking and sounding like someone who would rather have been almost anywhere else. The final peroration fell so flat that Davis had to signal with his hands that he was finished and beckon the near silent audience to its feet.
How things might have panned out had Davis not muffed his lines is almost as tantalising as the question of what might have happened if John Smith had lived. Davis’s campaign had been showing signs of weakness, but the conference speeches decisively shifted the narrative, turning him into the politician who had over-reached and Cameron into the natural-born leader. A Davis-led Conservative Party would have been very different from the Cameron-led one. Davis might have proved a flash in the pan: Brown might have held his nerve and called an early election in 2007 had he been facing Davis across the dispatch box rather than the unnervingly assured Cameron and his sidekick Osborne. On the other hand, had Davis made it to Downing Street there would have been a lot less space in British politics for Farage and Ukip to occupy.
Ukip’s appeal is driven in large part by the bland, corporate, Oxbridge saminess of the main party leaders: it’s what makes Farage, a privately-educated City gent, look like an outsider. That act would have been much tougher to pull off against Davis, who in many ways is a genuine outsider, a council-estate-born, up-by-his-bootstraps Tory in the John Major mould. Like Alan Johnson on the Labour side, Davis has the air of a man who has seen something of life outside the Westminster bubble. It’s an increasingly rare quality. Davis also comes across as someone who can think for himself, for better or for worse. He’s just not very good at conveying it in speeches.
Why should speech-making matter so much? After Obama’s 2004 triumph the commentator Hendrik Hertzberg said: ‘If he wrote that speech, he should be president, because it’s such a great speech. If he didn’t, he should be president, because he found such a great speechwriter.’ Which is nonsense, of course. These are relatively narrow accomplishments in the extensive portfolio of qualities one might look for in a national leader: perhaps necessary, but hardly sufficient. In the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination, Obama was regularly bested by Hillary Clinton in their grinding series of leadership debates, where it became clear she knew more than he did and had greater staying power in an argument. Davis outperformed Cameron in their one Question Time debate (polls of Tory voters scored Davis the winner by a margin of two to one). Cameron had the friendlier-sounding words but Davis had the sharper insights. It didn’t matter. The two speeches at the party conference had set the story in stone and there was no way back for Davis.
There are now so many different ways for politicians to communicate that it seems odd that speeches should continue to carry so much weight. Regardless of whether a good orator makes a good politician, why should bad orators still feel the obligation to prove they can cut it on the platform? The two most successful conservative leaders of the Western world – Stephen Harper in Canada and Angela Merkel in Germany – are notoriously uninspiring performers behind the lectern. A recent New Yorker profile of Merkel described her delivery as so toneless it seemed as if ‘she were trying to induce her audience into shifting their attention elsewhere’. But Merkel has the patina of power, which means her incompetence can be dressed up as devious subterfuge.
Poor Davis was still trying to prove himself in 2005, not least to the members of the press. One of the reasons speeches get noticed, even in 2015, is precisely because politicians have so many other ways to communicate: the set-piece address provides a focal point for stories that might otherwise get lost in the confusion of cyberspace. The rise of online communication has not quite had the effect on political speech-making that it has had on live music and literary festivals, where buoyant demand for the face-to-face experience is a reaction against the surfeit of virtual versions. The 30 per cent of the population who said they had attended a public election meeting during the 1950 general election campaign dropped to just 3 per cent in 2010 and it’s hard to believe it will be much higher this time. (Turnout at political meetings was high during the Scottish referendum campaign, but in that as in so much else the referendum looks more like the exception than the rule.) People don’t really want to listen to politicians talking. But a speech is still an event asking to be noticed. That’s the reason it can make a difference, especially for those aspiring to power.
This brings us to Ed Miliband. For someone who is not very good at delivering speeches Miliband has placed a lot of emphasis on them during his time as Labour leader. Some of these speeches have been highly counter-productive, like his most recent party conference address, which he attempted to deliver without visible notes (the bar having been set fatefully high by Cameron), with the result that he left out the crucial passage about the deficit. Even without that bit, the speech was too long and hard to sit through. Some of his speeches have offered too many hostages to fortune: his better delivered conference speech in 2011 drew a sharp contrast between the predators and the producers of national wealth and succeeded in pissing off a lot of the predators without getting much traction with the producers. The text of these addresses tends to be serious and well crafted. But the result is underwhelming. So why does he keep doing it? Because he has little choice. Miliband’s speeches are among the very few things he does that actually receive widespread attention.
However, there seems to be something else going on. Miliband is a conviction politician. He knows what he believes and he is sure he is right. This is what gives him his surprising levels of self-confidence (as he told the Financial Times last month, ‘Britain needs a Labour government and Britain needs a Labour government led by me’). He appears to think that speeches are a good way to convey this sense of conviction – that oratory works to the advantage of the person who knows his or her own mind. I think he is wrong about this. Cameron may be making it up as he goes along, but in a speech this can create a sense of open-mindedness. Miliband’s oratory is hard to get into because it is so full of certainty, a series of heartfelt convictions rather than an attempt to engage with the doubters. Like many Conservatives, Cameron may not know what he believes in but he knows what he doesn’t like – the Labour Party – and he organises his thoughts around that. It makes him flexible. Miliband doesn’t like what he doesn’t believe in. It makes him stiff.
People who know Miliband or have encountered him as part of a small group (declaration of interest: I am neither) speak of his warmth, passion and good humour. He is clearly a decent man and an impressive interlocutor. Yet he tends to switch off when he thinks his audience is on the wrong side of the argument, which is the reason he has annoyed so many people in business and in the City. His handlers wish they could convey his engaging qualities to a wider audience. ‘Ed speaks human’ was the slogan of his leadership campaign. But unfortunately Ed does not speech human. The good news is that although speeches can make or break individual careers, they tend not to have much impact on the outcome of elections. Miliband will have other ways of making an impression, perhaps in the leadership debates, where Cameron might once again be exposed. It’s also worth remembering that Obama, for all his qualities, was not the best orator in the 2008 presidential campaign. As the New York Times reported back then, there was someone whose ability to hold and rouse a crowd put even Obama in the shade. That was Sarah Palin. Her address at the Republican Convention accepting the vice-presidential nomination was a master class in seizing the moment, as good as anything I have ever seen. On the platform, Palin was a wonder. Luckily, it didn’t matter.