As the country prepares for an unexpected barrage of campaign rhetoric Professor Alan Finlayson analyses Theresa May’s opening shot and speculates on what might come next.
Theresa May’s surprise speech announcing a General Election, is rhetorically rather clever. She uses language to position herself favorably in the campaign to come. But it’s also risky, creating clear opportunities for her opponents.
Every clever schoolchild has worked out that the first thing you do in answering an essay question is to redefine it so that you can say whatever it was you wanted to say. The same principle can be applied in political debates. The party which defines what the debate is really about improves its chances of winning. That is why politicians will try to make a debate about, say, economic policy into one about competence or trust. Roman rhetoricians likened this to finding the ‘fulcrum’ of an argument, the point over which opinion was divided. The trick is to find a point where the distribution of opinion is unbalanced in a way that favors you. If opinion is split 55-45 on a vote about environmental regulation maybe you can redefine the question as one about ‘the overwhelming power of the state’ and put more numbers in your column.
In her speech calling for an election Theresa May used such rhetoric to try and define two debates at once.
The first of these is the question of whether or not there should be an election at all. Under current rules the UK Prime Minister cannot call an election. But she can propose one and put it to a vote in the House of Commons. The risk is that in so doing she might look opportunistic – exactly what the rules are meant to be prevent. So, May tries to do two things. The first is to make out that she is only reluctantly calling this vote. She says as much, adding that she is just doing what is ‘necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs’. She also tries to describe that Commons vote as about something other than an election. Rather, it is about letting ‘everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for Government’ and removing the ‘risk of uncertainty and instability’ and ensuring ‘strong and stable leadership’.
The UK is at the start of a period of complex and profound negotiations demanding the full focus of government and the subtlest of strategies. Here is the Prime Minister unexpectedly complicating that process further with an election certainly intended to enhance her personal power. But she defines the situation in the opposite way, implying that voting against the election is a vote for uncertainty and instability. That’s a bold rhetorical move.
It’s also only half of the story.
Being the one to blow the whistle on the start of the election campaign gives May a chance to set the terms within which that campaign will take place. And she certainly takes that chance. She goes all in, making the election about styles of leadership. She does this in two main ways.
The first is, indeed, stylistic. The language of the speech is restrained and formal. It isn’t full of fiery or flowery rhetoric. The words are simple and clear and direct. There are very few modifying adjectives of the sort which pepper Donald Trump’s speeches – huge, amazing, great. At a number of points she uses the speech to state her own actions: ‘I have just… I want to explain…I will move a motion in the House’. This is the language of a decisive and authoritative leader. And this part of the script is allied to the staging of the performance – outside Number 10, from a lectern. She is taking on the style of authoritative leader – the same kind of leader she says is needed at the present moment. She then uses this to, paradoxically, push aside the question of Brexit. ‘Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back’ she declares. The question before people, then, is who will lead the UK into it. She skates over the fact that she is already the leader and might perhaps be expected to get on with leading.
What she then does is to create the division between the two sides of the choice she wants the country to be faced with. On one side is ‘a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world’ (a somewhat tendentious framing of the matter); a UK which ‘will regain control’ of money, laws and borders. Here she wholeheartedly adopts the rhetoric of Brexit (control, sovereignty, borders) aligning it with herself, her party and with ‘the national interest’ and unity. On the other side are all the other parties. She lines them up as if they are part of the same ‘other’ camp: Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and (‘unelected members’) of the House of Lords. These forces ‘threaten’, ‘fight’ and ‘jeopardise’ things. They are only against – not, it seems, for them. Instead of demonstrating clear and decisive leadership in the national interest they engage in ‘political game-playing’. Notice here how the terms line up: unity, resolution, decision-making, seriousness and authority on one side – the side of ‘the people’; instability, blocking, gaming and coalition on the other.
It’s a strong opening gambit. Her style, her performance of leadership, is in harmony with her description of the problem the country faces (secure and authoritative leadership of Brexit negotiations) and connected to the way she divides up the choice on offer. Theresa May knows how to play the political game.
But she hasn’t boxed in her opponents entirely and they do have some rhetorical options of their own.
The first is to refuse to fight the election on these grounds. After all, why fight a fight on terrain your enemy has chosen? Why not try and make it about something else such as Scottish Independence, reversing Brexit or the NHS? Indeed, it is likely that this is what the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Labour will do. But they should be wary of the fact that May is in a sense inviting them do just that. She would like to be able to point to the disarray and disagreement of the opposition parties and their desire to make the fight about something other than who is able to lead the country through Brexit.
The second option, then, is for the opposition parties to go all in and take the argument to May on her terms. That is, to demonstrate unity among themselves, and a clear capacity to lead the UK during Brexit negotiations. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats are split over Brexit and the SNP intends something quite different from leading the UK. It seems unlikely that they could agree on campaign rhetoric.
There is one more option. That is to turn May’s rhetorical positioning against her: to paint her as the one playing a game, seeking personal political advantage and power, disrupting things rather than focusing on the task at hand. To separate her from her performance of authority and to divide her from ‘the people’. She is the one demonstrating weakness in abandoning office for an election at a vital moment. She is the one forcing us all to endure yet another vote when she should be getting on with the job. A key goal here would be to force divisions within the Tory camp – to push them to be clear on their positions and their ‘red lines’ and so show confusion on their side.
It’s likely that the election campaign will see May and colleagues replay the rhetorical strategy unveiled in this speech. We will also see the opposition parties try out these – and some other – alternative strategies. What we probably won’t see is ‘everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit’. That is because none of them really knows what to do. And that larger debate, the serious, political reckoning the UK and 27 EU member states, will not take place so long as the government has more familiar games to play.
Alan Finlayson is Professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia.
Image credit: Number 10
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