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Election Notebook

Boris’s pudding without a theme

The Prime Minister made a muddled start to the election campaign

How ‘presidential’ should a prime minister sound? If the presidential countenance involves an ability to articulate navigating a clear passage leaving others to bob upon the propellers’ churn, then Boris Johnson’s formal campaign launching address from the Downing Street tarmac could not be accused of sacrificing complexity for the greater goal of clarity.

‘Take away this pudding, it has no theme,” Churchill allegedly once instructed a waiter. The themes highlighted at lunchtime today by the wartime leader’s biographer-turned-successor were numerous. If modern communications is about getting one message over clearly, then this address was meant for those with broader powers of recall.

In the lead up to the drive to the palace, this was the election – if the Conservatives had their way – of getting Brexit done. That is a central demarcation between the Tories and the supposed “dither and delay” of their opponents. The assumption was that this point would be hammered home with the same repetitiveness as Theresa May’s pitch as the “strong and stable” choice. Perhaps that experience informs a more varied approach this time.

So, whilst Boris mentioned delivering on his deal, the Brexit imperative was quickly dispensed with in favour of emphasising the “moderate and compassionate one nation conservatism” that was delivering 40 new hospitals, more police officers, “brilliance in education,” the highest ever increase in the living wage (whatever became of the minimum wage?), the banning of the live and “cruel” shipment of animals, and much more besides.

It is one of the Prime Minister’s less effective speaking traits then when he reels off lists of objectives and achievements he speeds-up. The intent may be to give a sense of momentum and to avoid expending precious time that could be spent developing what the first President Bush dismissed as “the vision thing.” The effect, however, risks giving the impression that the shopping list of the done and to do is more an obligation than a pleasure.

This, then, was an opening campaign speech that was about everything in general, and nothing in particular. The threat of Corbynism was raised – for its sneering at entrepreneurs, its instinctive siding with Putin over the Salisbury poisoning, and its proposals to abolish Ofsted. The Johnsonian colourful imagery conjured up the “technocolour yawn of a coalition” and begged for 2020 to be “the year of investment and growth, not two referendums.” But those seeking the one clear defining message will have struggled to find it. This was a speech of the many, not the few.

At almost nine minutes it was also long. Theresa May managed to give a far tighter scripted (and more effective) first speech as Prime Minister in a little over half the time. With its emphasis on the “burning injustices” of the disadvantaged and the “just about managing of the ordinary” working class families, May’s stall-setting seemed more like the campaign pitch of an insurgent, rather than that of a newly installed Conservative incumbent. But it was memorable and effective, setting the tone for her early months of promise before the calling of the early general election commenced the great disillusionment.

What will be recalled of her successor’s pitch to the electors today? If it leaves any trace, it is that the Prime Minister is in a hurry with much to do and money to spend.

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