This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Six years ago, a Birmingham surgeon called Bruce Keogh convinced his surgical colleagues to publish their mortality rates on the internet. Six years on, and he’s now Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS in England, and the death rates for common operations have fallen by 20 per cent.
Coincidentally, ministers started publishing their speeches on the web at about the same time. Sadly, there has been no similar reduction in the number of speeches that are stillborn, declared dead on delivery. When Total Politics asked me to analyse all of last year’s ministerial speeches to see how the government is getting along, my first response was no. Nevertheless, duty prevailed, along with a sense of idle curiosity, so here we go.
First: the stats. Last year, the 29 members of Her Majesty’s cabinet delivered 460 speeches. Those speeches contained 916,874 words, which is more than the complete works of Shakespeare (884,647 words), War and Peace (565,146 words) and the Bible (774,746 words).
David Cameron is still the best of the bunch, addressing the biggest issues, winning the most attention and coining the slickest phrases (muscular liberalism, anyone?). But he is also by far the most prolific speaker – making 88 speeches over the year, around 30 times as many as Ken Clarke – the most concise (his average speech clocks in at just 15 minutes against Gove at 40) – and the plainest, racking up an average 4.50 characters per word. A typical monosyllabic Cameron sentence goes like this: “It’s because I love the NHS so much that I have to change it.”
A typical David Willetts sentence (Britain’s wordiest minister), however, goes more like this: “British birth cohort studies are acknowledged worldwide as unique data resources which have underpinned innovative research on the health, socio-economic status and wellbeing of people in our country.”
But talent isn’t restricted to the top. Unusually, this is a cabinet of leaders, not followers. Over the year, the cabinet has comprised two existing party leaders (Cameron and Clegg), three former party leaders (Hague, Duncan Smith and Cable), and at least two people convinced they would be better choices than the actual leaders (Clarke and, previously, Huhne).
Quality is high, but, for me at least, two speakers particularly stood out. Firstly, Iain Duncan Smith. I know, it surprised me too. Once the ‘quiet man’ of politics, today’s IDS speaks with a profound sense of conviction, certainty and confidence that only comes from genuinely not giving a damn what people think.
His speech on marriage addressed head-on an issue that has been a political taboo for years, with a stance that was unfashionable and provocative: “Marriage is perhaps the best antidote to the celebrity self-obsessed culture we live in, for it is about understanding that our true value is lastingly expressed through the lives of others we commit to.”
And he had no problem painting a vivid picture of a troubled family: “Dad has passed out on the mattress in his own vomit. Mum is crouched over a table, preparing her fix. What you don’t see is the child hidden in the corner crying.” IDS reminds me of that essential speechwriting truth – the best speakers position themselves just outside, not inside, the political mainstream. Therein also lies the secret of Baroness Warsi’s success. She has made some stonking speeches over the last year, particularly on faith. Again, she went against the grain of the times, defiantly insisting that “We do God”, in stark contrast with the Blair years, and issuing a proud defence of her Islamic faith.
She condemns Polly Toynbee and Rod Liddle for condoning Islamophobia, and regrets how Ruth Kelly had her religious views ridiculed when she was education secretary. Her argument is rich and thoughtful, drawing on the teachings of archbishops and Aaron Sorkin alike. Warsi doesn’t have many fans in the Conservative Party but, for my money, she’s the closest they have to a modern-day Margaret Thatcher.
But what about the rest? I was surprised by Osborne’s poetic side: his characterisation of the Labour years as “an illusion of growth built on easy money that has now turned to dust” was Eliot-esque.
I was less surprised to stumble upon Cable’s wit. I loved the way he opened last year’s Mansion House speech. “Last autumn, we turned down the easy option of putting out yet another government paper about growth. The last administration churned out such documents every year or so, and failed to achieve anything resembling sustainable growth. We know business wants action, not words. That is why instead we embarked on a Growth Review.” At least, I assume it was a joke. Certainly, it had me laughing for weeks.
I was also impressed with Liam Fox’s audacious openings: “Ladies and gentlemen, while we dine, Britain’s interests are under attack. Between 2009 and 2010, security incidents more than doubled. Was this in Afghanistan? No – this was in cyber space and the target was the MoD.” His successor, Philip Hammond, is at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to dramatic openings: “Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests: today I want to talk to you about how we go about building a sustainable future.”
Of course, every politician has their own strange rhetorical tics. Jeremy Hunt loves pop culture references, recently name-checking Lily Allen, Justin Bieber and David Beckham without drawing breath. Nick Clegg seizes any opportunity to tell anecdotes about his family – his parents, his wife and his kids. Francis Maude loves stories (including the one about Bruce Keogh that opened this article), as well as three-part lists: “Public money was managed in a casual, uncoordinated, even chaotic fashion… Waste was tolerated, fraud was ignored and debt was shrugged off.” David Willetts loves obscure quotations, Cheryl Gillan likes unusual metaphors, while Oliver Letwin seemingly enjoys jargon: “To unlock innovation, the white paper commits us to diversity of provision, removing barriers to entry, stimulating entry by new types of provider, and unlocking new sources of capital.”
|Name||Position||Number of speeches 2011-12||Total words||Average words per speech||Average words per sentence|
|David Cameron||Prime minister||88||149,908||1703.5||21|
|Nick Clegg||Deputy prime minister||29||70,340||2425.52||21|
|William Hague||Foreign secretary||59||100,830||1708.98||29|
|Danny Alexander||Chief secretary||9||21,995||2443.89||24|
|Ken Clarke||Justice secretary||3||7,250||2416.67||21|
|Theresa May||Home secretary||25||59,067||2362.68||21|
|Liam Fox/Philip Hammond||Defence secretary||17||41,181||2422.41||25|
|Vince Cable||Business secretary||26||56,862||2187||23|
|David Willetts||Universities and science minister||7||27,901||3985.86||22|
|Iain Duncan Smith||Work and pensions secretary||11||22,824||2074.91||25|
|Chris Huhne/Ed Davey||Energy and climate change secretary||21||51,323||2443.95||18|
|Andrew Lansley||Health secretary||35||83,372||2382.01||31|
|Michael Gove||Education secretary||12||51,056||4254.67||27|
|Eric Pickles||Communities and local government secretary||18||30,802||1711.22||15|
|Philip Hammond/Justine Greening||Transport secretary||14||25,973||1855.21||22|
|Caroline Spelman||Environment, food and rural affairs secretary||17||28,494||1676.12||18|
|Andrew Mitchell||International development secretary||9||24,530||2725.56||25|
|Jeremy Hunt||Culture, Olympics, media and sport secretary||6||14,389||2398.12||24|
|Owen Paterson||Northern Ireland secretary||3||7,028||2342.67||21|
|Michael Moore||Scotland secretary||4||12,504||3126||19|
|Cheryl Gillan||Wales secretary||8||16,572||2071.5||33|
|Baroness Warsi||Minister without portfolio||5||13,287||2657.4||34|
|Francis Maude||Cabinet Office minister||10||18,798||1879.8||27|
|Oliver Letwin||Minister of state at the Cabinet Office||1||1,047||1047||28|
|Dominic Grieve||Attorney General||9||31,662||3518||30|
Of the course, the cabinet does contain some real stinkers. Theresa May is top of the list with her story about the “illegal immigrant who can’t be deported because, and I’m not making this up, he had a pet cat”. Not only was the story made up, but it had also been pinched from Nigel Farage. I still can’t quite understand how her special advisers weren’t sacked for that.
Clegg’s soundbites are becoming increasingly desperate. As Charlie Brooker wrote, instead of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’, he might as well have spoken about ‘Bum-Wipe Britain’. And as for his idea about an ‘Axis of Openness’ spreading across the world… Sorry, are you really wanting to compare the UN, the WTO and other multilateral institutions with Nazi Germany?
And as for Gove, he’s staking a claim as master of the purple prose. He’s a funny man. When he was a journalist, he spent his whole time politicking and hobnobbing with the Notting Hill Set. Now he’s a politician, he spends his whole time locked away, writing. And, the effort is etched on his every utterance: “Nothing is so effective a solvent of hatred and prejudice as learning and wisdom… the route to fulfilment for the next generation is dedication to study, hard work and restless curiosity and the single most effective way to generate economic growth is invest in human and intellectual capital – to build a better education system.” This would be fine for Barack Obama, but Gove? I think not.
The final big question is what’s happened to William Hague: the boy wonder who, aged 15, cheekily wagged his finger at Margaret Thatcher from the podium, the elder statesman who could command £25,000 for an after-dinner speech?
The good news is, he’s still alive. The bad news is that the Foreign Office has clearly performed some painful surgical procedure on him, because instead of thumping his fist about how many days we have to “save the pound”, he’s now saying stuff like this: “The prime minister and I are working to galvanise a transformation of the European Union’s neighbourhood policy so that it can act as a magnet for positive change, providing clearer incentives for the creation of free, democratic and just societies that respect human rights.”
My guess is it was a lobotomy. They can perform these procedures incredibly safely these days, didn’t you know?