Boris Johnson has just won the Conservative Party vote to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister. What tone did his victory speech set? What might we expect of the new Prime Minister’s public speaking?
Here’s my “hot take” on Boris Johnson’s victory speech…
We already know that Boris Johnson is a Classicist. He’s confident with rhetorical devices.
For example, we heard various Rules of Three: “Our party, our values, and our ideals;” “Good, proper, noble instincts;” and the election campaign’s “Deliver Brexit, unite the country, and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.”
Likewise, Johnson cast Theresa May’s legacy as the three elements of equal pay, mental health, and racial equality in the justice system. And he spoke of the three “instincts of the human heart:” to own a home, to earn money, and to provide for one’s family.
Meanwhile, Johnson discussed what he called the “jostling sets of instincts” which we must learn to hold, suspended and unresolved, alongside one another. The most striking was the desire for international collaboration alongside the desire for “democratic self-government.”
He was referring to Brexit, of course, but I think it interesting that he’s willing to recognise that some competing instincts cannot be reconciled. It’s a philosophical point about dialectics and binary thinking, but will it translate into an effort towards political unity?
Johnson’s repeated use of the phrase “We Conservatives” would suggest so. We’ll see.
Don’t let the bumbling delivery and the shuffled papers fool you: Boris Johnson has thought about these phrases and phrasings in advance. He knows what he’s doing.
True to form, Johnson told a few jokes. He knows that laughter unites the audience.
He can do irony in a way that Theresa May can’t.
Johnson suggested that many people will “question the wisdom” of electing him as Prime Minister. He asked the audience, “Do you look daunted?” in a funny, ice-breaking sort of way. And he joked about the acronym created by his campaign slogan, “DUD” (Deliver… Unite… Defeat), which he then extended into a moment of bathos when he added “Energise” to create the acronym “DUDE.”
Boris Johnson’s ability to switch between humour and rhetorical flair (and, my next point, a sense of monumentalism) is, perhaps, his greatest strength when it comes to speeches and public speaking. It’s very different, for example, to Corbyn’s style.
Johnson’s ability to “code-switch” suggests ease, comfort, and control.
Johnson referred to “two-hundred years” of Tory party history, which culminate with “And today, at this pivotal moment in our history.” He constructed a historical narrative, which gave weight and significance to his election. His term as Prime Minister, he let us know, will not be a break with the past but the continuation of a great history.
Johnson is definitely a subscriber to the “Great Man Theory of History.”
That said, Johnson was clear that the historical thrust needs new impetus. Reminiscent of Geoffrey Cox’s Milton references at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference (“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks”), Johnson spoke of a “slumbering giant” now to adopt a “Can do” attitude.”
Will the sense of historical significance in Boris Johnson’s victory speech inspire and rouse? Or will it create endless bathetic contrast with the humdrum reality of life on the ground?
We will see…
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