Theresa May’s rhetorical punch

Published by Politico (27th January, 2017)

As someone who spends days churning out words for columns and foreign dispatches, I like to liven up copy with a few flamboyant flourishes, splashes of color and perhaps a little alliteration. But on the rare occasions I tried to do the same with speeches for former British Prime Minister David Cameron, he would cross out my most creative suggestions since he wanted his words to reflect his character: calm, uncomplicated and businesslike.

Cameron wasn’t one of the great political orators of our age, but he knew how to press the right buttons — like his successor. Prime Minister Theresa May’s public persona is diligent and dogged, trading off her air of quiet competence. She comes across as the nation’s headmistress, and her speeches reflect this no-nonsense approach. She marshals her facts, structures her arguments, struggles with jokes, makes points with laser-sharp precision and rattles out the lines. She gets an A for effort and hard-work — but perhaps just a B for delivery.

And yet, just as her fashion style is classic with subtle flashes of quirky character, so it is with her speeches; they often display a similar sense of the unexpected. May uses many of the boringly-familiar clutter of political speeches, from clichés about change and ‘brighter futures’ to artful mentions of ‘ordinary working people,’ drawing on her ordinary background as vicar’s daughter. She tends to avoid anecdotes but likes a nod to history.

But every now and then, May’s careful cadence is disrupted by a burst of exuberance, producing orations that have helped define her as a politician. This was how she grabbed national attention 15 years ago with a superb speech pointing out harsh truths to a complacent Conservative Party. ‘Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government,’ she told the shocked audience at a party conference after her appointment as chairman. ‘Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us — the nasty party.’

Three years ago, when she was home secretary, she stunned a conference of the police federation with a savage speech condemning their ‘contempt for the public.’ After listing a host of police failures, from racism on the streets to the Hillsborough football disaster, she ordered them to change, then left the podium to dismayed silence. It was riveting to watch, as May fired off fireworks in her sober tones. Once again, this underlined the complexity and occasional courage of a politician often dismissed as a technocrat and renowned in Westminster for her caution.

Now May has taken the keys to Downing Street. Having done so, she faces the toughest task of any prime minister since Winston Churchill, as she attempts to extricate Britain from the European Union while handling massive economic, political and social fallout. Every mistake will be magnified in a divided nation, and the potential downsides of wrong decisions are huge. She must do this against a portentous backdrop of populist insurgency and dwindling faith in democracy.

And yet, earlier this month, at a time when walls are being erected from Europe to the United States, she went to Davos and mounted a stirring defense of globalization. It was easy to poke holes in the argument and point out flaws in her ‘Global Britain’ arguments, given that her country is leaving the world’s biggest trading block for uncertain waters. But there was clear passion in her words and exultant pride in a nation deriving strength from diversity. ‘We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy, and we’re proud of it,’ she said.

This week, she crossed the Atlantic to meet the bigoted billionaire who seized the world’s most powerful job. It is disconcerting to see appeasement of this dismal man — a British prime minister racing to his side, spouting the usual nonsense about special relationships in a desperate search for a post-Brexit trade deal. Yet, note again how May used bold language and colorful phrases to cement her mission. She delivered not just dubious claims of renewal at a time when both Britain and the United States are moving in regressive directions, but she also offered bold talk of two nations ‘working together to defeat evil’ and claimed that they hold out ‘the promise of freedom, liberty and the rights of man.’

Her speech to U.S. Republicans on Thursday was a tour de force, arguably the most important by a British prime minister in that nation since then Prime Minister Tony Blair promoted the cause of liberal interventionism. May’s speech struck a different tone, repudiating Blair’s corrosive stance while paying homage to ‘America’s destiny to lead the free world.’ What May delivered was an assured statement of intent, subtly shifting ground on issues such as Iran and Israel while underlining the need for NATO and European security. ‘We should not jeopardize the freedoms that President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher brought to Eastern Europe by accepting President Putin’s claim that it is now in his sphere of influence.’

It is hard to think of two more different characters than Donald Trump and Theresa May. One is a brash American reality television star who has lived his life in the headlines and suddenly exploded in the most dramatic style onto frontline politics. The other an enigmatic suburban woman with little time for small talk who rose slowly to the top of British politics. Yet, as she has shown throughout her career, May is unafraid of deploying punchy words — phrases that might seem more suited to American politicians and flamboyant speeches to achieve her aims. Classic with just a twist of color, from kitten heels to killer lines.

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