Jacqui Smith: What’s the point of a Ministerial speech?

Written by Jacqui Smith on 17 June 2016 in Opinion

VIEW FROM AN  EX-MINISTER: No ministerial speech can be successful if it doesn’t reflect the ideas and the values of the politician giving it. 

One of the many joys of being a former Minister is that I no longer have to make large numbers of speeches to conferences where the audience ranges from sceptical to downright hostile.  I reflected this as I sat at a recent NHS conference waiting to hear from Jeremy Hunt.  Most of those around me were at the sceptical rather than hostile end of the spectrum, but there were pretty low expectations and various negative mutterings.  I felt for Jeremy.

In fact he made the right call.  He clearly didn’t have any major announcements or policy changes to make, so he limited himself to taking off his jacket, making a few high level points about his objectives and the current challenges facing the NHS, reiterating his respect for the audience and inviting questions.  An important lesson for ministers here – if you don’t have anything to say, don’t spend 30 minutes doing it.

I had a rule as a Minister to always take questions.  I’m amazed that some still don’t.  What does it say to an audience who are often more expert on the details of your portfolio than you are to turn up, transmit and then go away again without any apparent interaction?

If you are inviting a Minister, you should give some thought to what you think you will get out of a supposed ‘keynote’ speech.  There may be a big announcement to be made in which case there will be media coverage.  However it will be coverage of the Minister, not your issue or cause.  You – or your members may have a grievance (real or supposed) with the government.  Trust me, it won’t further your case to use a minister’s speech appearance to express your anger by sullen silence, aggressive questioning or a vaguely offensive introduction to the Minister.  Ask the National Union of Teachers or the Police Federation how well that works.  The NUT managed to get a Labour government to effectively cut off public relations with it – and its members.  The Police Fed has so alienated Home Secretary after Home Secretary that Theresa May, having faced this for longer than most, is now embarked on a process of threatening their very status and existence. 

There is kudos in having a Minister at your event, but try to ensure some positive interaction.  How about a short speech and then an in conversation with a skilled host who isn’t just going to just ask grandstanding questions.  Or move away from the speech option altogether and get the Minister to do a dinner where there can be some real interaction.  Less publicity, but probably a better opportunity to share ideas and influence.

Sometimes a speech is the right option.  What does a Minister – or any politician - want from a speech?  Sometimes the aim is to outline a major strategic focus or shift of policy.  In his speech in Chicago in 1999, Tony Blair’s outlining of the principle of liberal interventionism set the intellectual rationale for his foreign and defence policy.  Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988 argued for the UK’s place in the EU, but on the basis of individual sovereignty.  Although not a Minister, Gordon Brown’s speech in the Scottish referendum created a step change in passion in a campaign which had understandably been focussed on risk and negativity.  (Can anyone achieve that in the next four days for the EU referendum campaign?)

Sometimes the aim is to win support or persuade.  Hilary Benn’s speech in the Parliamentary debate on military action in Syria was a barnstormer.  David Cameron’s leadership campaign speech at the 2005 Conservative party conference focussed on arguing for a new sort of Conservative party and catapulted him past the previous frontrunner David Davis.  Neil Kinnock’s Leader’s speech at the 1985 Labour Party conference marked a turning point for the Labour party towards electability.

Sometimes politicians have to entertain.  Alan Johnson is a favourite on the Labour fundraising circuit for his inimitable combination of warmth and successful humour.  Barack Obama’s speech to the Correspondent’s dinner this year has gone viral as he demonstrated a deft touch, great comedy timing and some genuinely funny lines.  Being entertaining isn’t always easy for politicians.  Gordon Brown has a great story about talking to Amy Winehouse about meeting Nelson Mandela when she told him that he had a lot in common with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, as they’d both spent much of their lives in prison.  Unfortunately Gordon has been telling this story for about ten years – many have heard it several times.  It’s lost some of its impact.

Speeches aren’t always the answer.  However if you’re giving a speech, you should do it as well as possible and that needs skilled input from others.

No Ministerial speech can be successful if it doesn’t reflect the ideas and the values of the politician giving it.  And the Minister needs to be able to deliver it effectively.  But it is rare for Ministers to write the entirety of their own speeches.  The most senior and effective political orators are also able to call on the services of brilliant speech writers so those with the most interesting ideas and the most deft delivery also have the most effective content. 

However, if you are a ‘jobbing’ middle rank minister delivering several speeches each week, you will be dependent for content and style on a civil service which consistently fails to prioritise the skills of speech writers.  Someone working on a specific policy may be expert on the details of the policy, but is unlikely to have the skills to turn those ideas into a convincing speech.  Writing speeches is too often seen as not real civil service work, too political, too much about the person rather than the policy.  This is a wrongheaded view in my opinion. 

The role of a Minister is to set direction, make decisions and to communicate.  The best support in enabling them to communicate the government’s policies must be part of the civil service support provided to Ministers.  Everybody would gain if that happened more consistently.


Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and chair of the public affairs practice at Westbourne Communications.

Picture by: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP/Press Association Images



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