Britain is on the brink of leaving the European Union and Boris Johnson finds himself on the front line. On all sides he faces forces that work against him day and night to weaken his position as Prime Minister and hamper his efforts to take Britain out of the European Union.
Boris Johnson’s speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester may well be a defining moment in his ‘Battle for Brexit’. He has to unite a broken party, inspire a disillusioned nation and send a strong message that will thunder its way across the political chambers of Europe. The question is, will he manage?
Boris Johnson is a strong speaker in a weak position, and this is unquestionably the most important speech of his political career. Not only is it his first party conference speech as Prime Minister, but it is also in a time of political unrest the likes of which Britain hasn’t seen in a long time. His party is in disarray with 21 sacked MPs, the supreme court has declared his prorogation unlawful, the former attorney general suggested he might get sacked by the queen, people are estimating he won’t last the week, he hasn’t won a single vote in Parliament and to make matters worse he has just been accused of sexual misconduct by a journalist.
No Prime Minister has ever been in a weaker position. Unlike Theresa May’s Party conference speech last year, Boris Johnson can’t dance his way onto the stage to an ABBA song in a pathetic attempt to shift the headlines from content his speech. Short of staging a heart attack on camera, I don’t see how the Prime Minister can wiggle his way out of this one.
So, what chances are there of Boris Johnson actually managing to survive this Party Conference speech? In the past, Boris has sort of just depended on his posh accent and charisma to bumble his way through awkward situations. He often applies a rhetorical device called periphrasis. Periphrasis is when a speaker uses unnecessarily complicated and convoluted language in order to confuse people while at the same time seeming effortlessly eloquent and clever (it is a bit like the linguistic equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes). While the bumbling lion act might have worked for Boris when he was Mayor of London, recent events have made clear that it doesn’t work anymore.
Boris Johnson is leading the United Kingdom on a merry march into the political unknown, and if he wants to convince people to follow him, he needs to start acting and sounding like a leader – the time has come for the bumbling lion to roar!
So what can we expect from Boris Johnson’s speech?
Every speech needs to have a clear objective in mind. You need to ask yourself: what do I want to happen as a result of this speech? Boris Johnson’s objective is likely going to be to show the world that he is capable of leading the country and delivering Brexit. The question is: how can he do this?
In order to do this speech Boris will need to work on his ethos. Ethos is essentially a fancy Greek word for your credibility (how your audience view you). If your audience think you are weak, show them you are strong; if your audience think you are confused, show them you are clear; if your audience think you are disingenuous, prove to them that you are not.
I think it is safe to say that Boris Johnson’s credibility isn’t at best these days. He has been accused of lying to the Queen, his Brexit Bus figure was a lie, and people aren’t even sure if he genuinely believes in Brexit – he even famously wrote a pro-EU article before deciding what position he was going to take in the referendum.
Given all of the above, Boris has a very weakened ethos. He needs to strengthen it by showing people that he has a clear and realistic vision for post-Brexit Britain. One should expect a lot of his speech to be him talking about himself and his values as part of an attempt to regain some of that lost credibility.
As well as his ethos I imagine that he will also use a rhetorical device called energeia. Energeia is simply when a speaker presents a visually powerful image. He needs to present the country with a beautiful image of what post-Brexit Britain will look like and he needs to make it look convincing. He needs to talk about jobs, the economy and present this vision as being a new golden age for Britain. It is often the case that when a speaker presents a ‘golden age’ style picture to an audience, even if it is an impossible one, people are happy to believe them. Francis Bacon said that “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” There will be many Brexiteers out there who will be desperate to believe what they prefer to be true – and I can see Boris Johnson playing to that desperation and using energeia to paint a picture of what they want to see. The question is: will anyone believe him? I suppose that all depends on how convincingly he manages to deliver this dream.
The Prime Minister is in a very weak position and this speech could be his opportunity to regain some of his credibility and bolster the morale of his broken party. On the whole, it is not looking promising for Boris Johnson who is currently on route to becoming the least successful Prime Minister that this country has ever seen.
Worse comes to worst, he could always pretend to have a heart attack on stage…