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Boris Johnson thinks he is a great orator. He’s wrong

Broadcasters are struggling to reduce the Prime Minister’s speeches to sharable soundbites – the key to effective campaigning.

By George Grylls

It is easy to forget that the Conservatives launched their campaign yesterday. Various political journalists came to Birmingham to report on Boris Johnson and found themselves instead doing pieces-to-camera on Tom Watson. Events overshadowed events.

Johnson’s speech was a distinctly weird affair:

“We have a parliament that is paralysed, blocked, generally incapable of digestive function as an anaconda that has swallowed a tapir.”

This was not his only questionable analogy. The Prime Minister’s predilection for pompous parlance is well documented. Johnson takes a bumbling delight in words. Given the opportunity to show off, he cannot help himself. In 2017 on a visit to Myanmar as foreign secretary, he caused embarrassment by continually quoting the colonial poem “Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling. Johnson is not stupid. He was well aware that he would cause offence. But the temptation to demonstrate his brilliance was just too much.

Good campaign speeches are not grandiloquent. Concision is key. The Prime Minister was supposed to use his speech to address the electorate watching at home. But his refusal to moderate his language made it very hard for broadcasters to reduce his speech to usable clips. The transcript of the first soundbite used by the BBC runs as follows:

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“I didn’t want an election and no Prime Minister  frankly I love my job  no Prime Minister wants an election particularly when I’m enjoying…there’s so much that we want to get on and do. But, my friends, we have no choice.”

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Johnson’s tendency to forgo pauses in favour of muttering does him no favours with broadcasters. His campaign team know this. He knows this. But, just like in Myanmar, when faced with an audience, he cannot help himself. He wanders off into an ad-lib in pursuit of the adulation of the crowd. 

The team assembled by Tory campaign chief Isaac Levido is tech-savvy. But according to Ofcom, 79 per cent of people still get their news from TV, and BBC One remains their most important source. It has double the audience for news that Facebook does. Johnson would be committing a grave mistake if he disregarded the broadcasters when thinking about his approach to speeches.