PEOPLE often say the calibre of Britain’s national politicians has diminished greatly over the last decade or so. I happen to agree. It’s not just that so many MPs who have sat in the Commons since the turn of the century would, from an intellectual standpoint, be more at home in a local council chamber. It’s the fact that almost every one of them is a dire communicator.
Watch the late Labour MP Peter Shore, seen here in action at an Oxford Union debate on Europe in 1975, and marvel at the passion with which he makes his points. Is there any Westminster figure to match him today?
Shore came from a generation of orators which has all but died out. Specifically since 2010 – the days of David Cameron and Nick Clegg – it’s been a downward spiral.
Now consider the two main party leaders in 2019, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Anyone who watched the increasingly rotund Johnson on ITV on Tuesday night would have seen him reading his opening and closing remarks from notes. Everything about this was wrong. It meant he wasn’t speaking to the camera but instead had his head buried in the lectern. It suggested he didn’t know what he wanted to say and hadn’t even bothered to learn his lines for this most crucial occasion. His lack of confidence was stunning. For a prime minister, this will not do.
His excruciating catchphrase ‘Get Brexit Done’ wore thin weeks ago. It is now uttered in such a perfunctory tone that even he sounds tired of it. Yet he said it again and again on ITV. Who is advising him? If Johnson isn’t careful, he will turn lots of voters off.
Jeremy Corbyn did slightly better. Putting aside what he said, he showed himself to be an almost competent debater. But let’s face it, he is never going to set the world alight with his oratory. His mind is not quick enough and probably never has been.
The format of this debate was in many ways to blame. It encouraged rigidity where it should have been free-flowing. Each man had barely got into his stride before the moderator, Julie Etchingham, told him to stop talking. Shaking hands and asking what each would give the other for Christmas were naff gimmicks. I learned very little from it that was new or enlightening. Remember, this debate was supposed to be a key moment in the most important general election in a generation!
There is still at least one leader, also interviewed by ITV and the BBC later on Tuesday night, who does cut the mustard when it comes to public speaking. It’s Nigel Farage.
Again, putting aside what he said, like him or not, his ability to talk honestly is impressive. He speaks from the heart. This is the reason he is comfortably the best communicator in British politics. He would wipe the floor with any other party leader – Nicola Sturgeon, who is easily a better speaker than Johnson or Corbyn, included.
Farage very rarely speaks with notes. Even when it comes to being quizzed on complicated detail about the inner workings of the EU or its treaties, he is the master of his brief. He is as quick as lightning. He is unflappable. He is not patronising. And he has a sense of humour. Every one of his opponents has for years desperately tried to portray him as some sort of Arthur Daley figure, and the reason is crystal clear: they are all terrified of him because he does not lie to secure votes.
He had to field two or three questions at a time during his stint on Question Time. He coped admirably. It is hard to believe that Johnson would have fared as well.
So it is an irony that Johnson forced Farage into a corner by refusing to do any sort of deal with the Brexit Party over candidates. Had a pact been formed, Farage would have been able to focus on those areas where the Brexit Party candidate is the main challenger to Labour. I’m convinced this would have ensured that the Leave vote next month would have crushed Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Yet with arrogance and a total lack of political judgment, Johnson refused to budge. What utter weakness he has shown by putting his party and his premiership before the good of the country.
If Tuesday night’s performance is all that Johnson has to offer, the Tories may struggle to get the Leave vote out on December 12. Why would they, when the jelly-like Johnson is considered the Tories’ best performer? If the result is poor for the Tories, Johnson will be to blame, and rightly so.
In the meantime, Farage is not giving up. He may even be working harder than he has before, and enjoying himself.
We must pray that he is successful. He holds the key to keeping Johnson honest if he is returned to Downing Street. It really is about time this disgraceful former friend of the American ‘businesswoman’ Jennifer Arcuri is held to account for something in his life.
Keep at it, Nigel. Your country needs you.