1. John Major, announcement of leadership vote, rose garden, Downing Street, June 1995
Following months of speculation about his leadership, John Major decided that enough was enough after returning from the G7 conference in Nova Scotia, Canada. He called the press to the Downing Street rose garden and announced that he was putting his leadership on the line to reassert his authority. As he said: “In short, it is time to put up or shut up.”
Shirley Williams picked this as her top political speech when we asked contributors back in 2008:
Major’s actions gave him his first favourable press coverage for years, and of course he won the subsequent leadership election. Although the Tories were doomed to electoral wipeout in 1997, he managed to hold the party together over the next two years at least.
Suffering from acute physical pain and fed up with the endless backbiting in the press, he had gone beyond calculating the political risks of his actions and didn’t care whether he won or lost. It was a courageous measure in desperate times which contains a lesson for the current resident of No 10.
2. Neil Kinnock, “I warn you” speech, Welsh Labour party conference, June 1983
This speech was only just pipped to the post for our top ten by another famous speech of Neil Kinnock’s, directed at the Militant tendency. On the eve of the 1983 election — knowing, after poor poll results, that his party was likely to lose — he laid out a nightmarish vision of the future: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.”
Kevin Maguire picked this:
The desperate, emotional appeal of Neil Kinnock’s “I warn you” speech on the eve of the June 1983 election captured the frustration of the left when Thatcher was in her vindictive pomp. Here was a leading member of Labour who knew the party would lose, but was powerless to stop her destroying the communities he loved. Most great speeches offer a vision. Kinnock’s was a vision of hell.
The blogger Ellie Gellard (Stilettoed Socialist) chose this, too:
For pure passionate, political oratory, you have to go some to beat Kinnock’s “I warn you” speech: powerful, direct and prophetic. He lived up to his, and my, hero Nye Bevan with that call to a nation to reject a Thatcher government which was slowly eroding our society. I can weep just reading it.
3. Roy Jenkins’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, Richard Dimbleby Lecture, November 1979
Roy Jenkins, then president of the European Commission, gave the annual Dimbleby Lecture, titling his speech “Home Thoughts from Abroad”. In it, he drew attention to problems associated with the two-party system, blaming it for Britain’s underperformance. He advocated a new “radical centre” and called for a new political grouping.
The speech prefigured his defection from Labour just over a year later to form the Social Democratic Party under the banner of the “Gang of Four” — Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers.
David Marquand said:
In this speech, Jenkins broke the ultimate taboo in Labour politics at the time by hinting at the possibility of a break from the party. The effect of his call for a new “radical centre” was immense. Suddenly, he was no longer a distant figure brooding in his Brussels eyrie; he was once again a player in the hurly-burly of domestic politics . . .
I think he felt guilty that he hadn’t done more to resist the rise of the far left in Labour while he was still at Westminster, and gradually came to believe that it was his duty to fight for his values, if necessary by breaking with the party. The “Home Thoughts from Abroad” lecture was a signal that he was now prepared to do this — a toe dipped in the water to see how much support he would gather.