In thinking about the worst political speeches delivered in Britain, I reached for lectures that weren’t just technically poor but epoch defining in their badness. Each one had to have said something larger about the inherent problems of the political class in our beleaguered age.
With that in mind, in descending order, here are five that fell flat:
Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour conference speech
In his first conference speech as party leader, the reasons for Corbyn’s eventual defeat are all here, on full display. The speech itself is relentlessly boring and substance is remarkably absent throughout. For a guy who was supposed to shake up the established way of doing things, it is notable how free of any original ideas he seemed to be in his first big set piece.
If you want to understand why Corbyn eventually got politically crushed, it was all there in 2015.
Most memorable line: ‘We need to be investing in skills, investing in young people, and…strong message here…not cutting student numbers.’ It’s rare in a speech by a major political figure you hear empty platitudes as well as a reading out of the bit that was mistakenly left on the teleprompter in one sentence, but when it happens you get comedy gold.
Jo Swinson launching the 2019 Lib Dem general election campaign
I don’t think any political speech has ever personally disappointed me as much as this one did. It was watching two things I didn’t want to happen unfold at once: one was the end of the Lib Dem resurgence that had happened since the summer of 2019, and with it the end of the party; the other was Brexit definitely happening, and probably a very harsh version of it at that. For in this short speech, the leader of the Lib Dems demonstrated that her party was woefully unprepared for the election ahead.
‘I’m excited to stand here as your candidate for prime minister,’ Swinson said in one of the more notably deluded portions of the launch speech. ‘Because a Liberal Democrat government will stop Brexit.’ We all know how that one turned out.
For all the bluster, Swinson offers no strategy at all around how to stop Brexit, nor how the Lib Dems were planning to overcome the fact that to people on the left, they were the party of austerity and tuition fees, while to people on the right, the party of trans-activism and soggy soft left values and policies.
Theresa May’s 2017 Conservative party conference speech
Part of the reason this speech is so bad is, yes, she was clearly feeling rotten. The letters falling off the sign behind her and the prankster who handed her the P45 aren’t really her fault either. Yet even after stripping all of that away, this is still a terrible speech, one in a series of awful ones delivered by May during her fractious time as prime minister.
‘Each generation should live the British Dream,’ the prime minister said. But what unfolded over the next hour was a nightmare.
It demonstrated exactly why the Tories should have ditched her immediately after the catastrophic general election of that year. There are no ideas here; no answer for why her party failed so badly a few months previous. Just a lot of hot air on Brexit that we later found out for sure she didn’t believe a word of.
Liz Truss’ speech to Conservative party conference, 2014
There is so much to say about this speech. It’s almost so bad it’s good; think of this as The Room of British political speeches. For a start, it’s the way Truss delivers it – in a sort of confused yet upbeat haze, as if she had suffered a heavy head injury and then taken a load of amphetamines to keep herself awake.
If you watch the whole thing, you might get past the awkward, David Brent-esque first few minutes and figure that Truss has settled down into a dull, run of the mill conference speech. Yet watch until the end – during the last three minutes, she goes completely off the deep end. It’s rightly the stuff of legend.
There is the bit when she extrapolates on how much cheese we import before telling the crowd, ‘That is a disgrace!’ in a manner that is unquestionably hilarious. Or when she tells the crowd she is going to Beijing to open new pork markets before striking a goofy pose. Both moments are beloved amongst political nerds for how camp they are – what I’ve never seen commented on is the fact that they are utterly contradictory.
One moment, Truss is shouting about how importing food is a ‘disgrace’; in the next, about how we need to open up markets to free trade. There is no attempt whatsoever to explain the friction between protecting your internal market from external competition and opening things up as much as possible so that your suppliers have access to larger external markets. Nope, in Liz’s world, somehow we’re going to be super-protectionist and super-free trading at the exact same time.
I haven’t yet mentioned the classic final line of the speech, delivered in by now classic Liz Truss style: “I will not rest until the British apple is back at the top of the tree!”
Ed Miliband’s 2014 conference speech
There are several speeches made by Ed Miliband that could have made this list. But given I decided to only pick one Ed M masterpiece, nothing else comes even close to how bad this was. The 2014 Labour leader’s conference speech is the ne plus ultra of terrible political speeches.
The vast proportion of the first twenty-five minutes of it – twenty-five – is Ed recounting random stories of meeting people in posh parts of north London. It’s a little look into Ed’s world. A young woman in a park says that when she spotted him, she’d hoped he was Benedict Cumberbatch. She then tells the Labour leader that ‘My generation is falling into a black hole’. Then comes the bit where Ed tells the activists that his time at the top of the party has aged him prematurely before adding, ‘But hang on a minute, some of you look quite a lot older as well!’ Ed asks one of these random people he meets how she is going to vote in the upcoming general election. ‘I haven’t decided yet’ is her answer. Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts that this speech swung her vote toward Labour.
I think the impression this opening section was supposed to convey was one of Ed Miliband as a normal person, out on the doorstep, talking to people across the country. Except it does the exact opposite, painting Miliband as a weirdo who hangs out in NW3 chatting up upper-middle class students when he isn’t being mistaken for Benedict Cumberbatch on Hampstead Heath.
It needs to be seen to be believed.
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