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Home | 2017 | October

Mrs Shopping-List meets Pericles

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2017-10-05 11:01. Updated on UTC 2017-10-06

Even that old trick, the management of expectations, does not work with Theresa May, Mrs Shopping List. The level of expectation for her pointless speech at the pointless Conservative Conference before a small audience of the silently dutiful hovered around zero. Even then she managed to underperform.

When even the alphabet rebels

The star of the event turned out to be the slogan that had been carefully positioned behind her: 'BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE' – yet another amputated present-participle phrase to join the modern plague of such things. The tedium of her tedious speech, delivered tediously, soon overcame the very letters of the slogan. The phrase went from BUILDING to DISMANTLING, as one by one their little letter-eyelids sank, their hold on the wall weakened and they drifted like autumn leaves down to the ground and blissful, forgetful slumber.

I want to break free!

I want to break free!

Sympathy to contempt

That only an embarrassing attack of coughing preventing the same need for sleep overcoming the audience sums up the general quality of the speech perfectly. There was some sympathy from even the heartless ones at such a public humiliation, but the sympathy was cut short by the stupidity of her team, who announced to the world the staggering number of interviews she had given in the days before her big speech. This sympathy turned into contempt at the foolishness of this behaviour.

Shopping lists

All the shopping list items were there, of course: build council houses, leave the EU, cap energy prices, shut down the internet, encourage organ donations, 'investing' in this and that – mental health, for example, without any trace of irony. All the items of the shopping list are just pious wishes without hope of realisation. Here's a shopping list example:

It's why tackling the injustice and stigma associated with mental health is a particular priority for me. So we are building on our record of giving mental and physical health parity in law by investing more in mental health than ever before. But there is widespread concern that the existing Mental Health legislation passed more three decades ago is leading to shortfalls in services and is open to misuse. Detention rates under the Mental Health Act are too high. And it is people from black and minority ethnic populations who are affected the most. So today I can announce that I have asked Professor Sir Simon Wessely to undertake an independent review of the Mental Health Act, so that we can tackle the longstanding injustices of discrimination in our mental health system once and for all.

Somewhere behind her a letter is silently easing its grip on the background.

Dream turned nightmare

Shopping lists of pious wishes are bad enough, but rhetoric and its spoken delivery are quite beyond her. She came up with the slogan the 'British Dream', which she used in the speech 22 times, even ending with it: 'Let us renew the British Dream'.

Branding a phrase with initial capital letters does not make it important. Just repeating a fatuous phrase 22 times – catchword-22 – will not make it less fatuous or worth repeating. Winston Churchill did not have to say 'iron curtain' 22 times for it to pass into the language.

She and her scribblers are completely insensible to language, not yet realising the satirical potential of that phrase when attached to the right images. How long will we have to wait before the 'British Nightmare' comes into currency?

Rhetoric, repetition and register

Repetition is her only rhetorical technique, but even that she mishandles by having no ear for cadence – the repetitions are just tacked on to the end of sentences or paragraphs without any suggestion of rhythmic flow.

Worse: she has no ear for register, the level of the language she is using. Once you start using rhetorical techniques, the rest of the speech has to maintain the required elevated level. Consider one of the clunkiest moments of her speech, in which she comes up with another slogan to repeat. The slogan is, however, formulated in an argot that jars against the relatively elevated tone of the language around it:

Like the families of the 96 men, women and children who tragically lost their lives at Hillsborough. For years they saw people in authority closing ranks and acting against them, but now they are on the way to seeing justice served.

That's what I'm in this for.

Like the victims and survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, ignored for years by people in positions of power, now on the long road to the truth.

That's what I'm in this for.

But our ability to help people who need transplants is limited by the number of organ donors that come forward. That is why last year 500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today. So to address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system. Shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation. Working on behalf of the most vulnerable.

That's what I'm in this for.

It's why after seeing the unimaginable tragedy unfold at Grenfell Tower, I was determined that we should get to the truth.

Because Grenfell should never have happened – and should never be allowed to happen again.

So we must learn the lessons: understanding not just what went wrong but why the voice of the people of Grenfell had been ignored over so many years. That's what the public inquiry will do. And where any individual or organisation is found to have acted negligently, justice must be done.

That's what I'm in this for.

And because in this – as in other disasters before it – bereaved and grieving families do not get the support they need, we will introduce an independent public advocate for major disasters.

An advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families to support them at public inquests and inquiries. The strong independent voice that victims need.

That's what I'm in this for.

It's why tackling the injustice and stigma associated with mental health is a particular priority for me. [...]

That's what I'm in this for.

Excruciating in every way, 'that's what I'm in this for' is repeated eight times in this speech. Awful.

Don't think

We are repelled by the formal errors of the construction of the speech before we even think about its substantive content. Once we do think about it, the boring shambles turns to disaster.

It takes no great mind to point out that during the period that all these shopping list evils raised their heads, the evils that she will now slay, she was the one who was responsible for them, either as Home Secretary or as Prime Minister. Those 'people in authority', 'people in positions of power' – they were your people, Prime Minister. Just running down a shopping list of things now to be fixed always calls up the question: why didn't you fix them then in your ten years in power?

She is an unsustainably dim authoritarian. She has to go.


One moment… my assistant has just passed me a note:

You do realise, don't you, that when May goes her successor will probably be one of the following:
—Johnson
—Davis
—Rudd
—Hammond
—Gove

You fathead.

Quite. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Update 06.10.2017

An article by Andrew Pierce in MailOnline confirms what we thought was obvious from the inadequacies of Theresa May's speech: she is dim and has no strategic talent at all.

After noting how seriously former PMs Blair and Cameron took their conference speeches – the highlights of the political year – he describes how negligent May and her advisors were in the preparation of hers:

When David Cameron was Tory leader, he worked on the first drafts of his autumn conference speech in August. Yet his successor's team met for the first time to discuss the theme only four weeks ago.

We learn from Pierce where the horrible phrase 'British Dream' came from (with or without capitalisation):

Shockingly, I'm told by a backbench Tory MP that the group had very few big ideas other than that the PM should champion the 'British dream' – a phrase that she herself had used to describe how she wanted every new generation of Britons to enjoy a better standard of living than the previous one.

Such an idiotic lack of planning and foresight has only one consequence:

Her aides struggled on with their outline texts, but without proper guidance from the PM herself, the first rough draft was completed only two weeks ago.

'But there was a bigger problem', writes Pierce:

By the time she arrived in Manchester, Mrs May had a heavy cold. Sane advice would have been for her to take it easy, glad-hand just a few delegates and put all her efforts into her speech.

But, ludicrously, her aides arranged 28 media interviews and for her to attend 19 receptions, speaking at most. No wonder her vocal cords were raw on Wednesday.

Meantime, just an hour a day was ring-fenced on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to refine the speech, but even that time was reduced as extra events crept into her schedule.

Instead of launching a last-minute rescue bid on the speech, the PM agreed to be subjected to two major TV interviews on Tuesday afternoon – one, a fierce encounter with the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg and another with Corbyn fan Jon Snow from Channel 4 News.

Finally, a weary Mrs May rejoined her team to look at what by now was a much-abandoned and inadequate speech. This was around 6pm. But Mrs May left prematurely to attend another round of engagements with party activists. On her return at 11pm, still suffering a cold, she did a run-through of the speech before going to bed at midnight.

Astonishingly, she never did a full rehearsal, reading it from start to finish with her team.

Indeed, I'm told there wasn't the time – or the inclination. 'She doesn't like doing that – it's not her style,' said one MP.

What madness.

She should have been encouraged to stay in her hotel suite for hours – practising the speech, drinking hot lemon and honey drinks, with a doctor or voice coach on call.

Pierce's conclusion is correct – as far as it goes:

The fact that none of this was thought of speaks volumes about the calibre of people around her.

That fact speaks most eloquently of all about the calibre of Mrs Shopping-List herself.