Politics can be a brutal sport. How we love to snigger and point when hypocrisy is exposed or actually just when things go wrong.
Yesterday, Ed Balls got his turn in the stocks. His reply to the Chancellor’s autumn statement was sub-standard and poor; his delivery was faltering, the performance was weak.
What went wrong?
Called to account on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, Balls suggested that his stammering affliction may have been to blame. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson commented subsequently how significant it was that Balls had prayed in aid something so personal and private. The reason he’d done so thought Robinson was because he reckoned Balls would rather people think almost anything than that he had been wrong-footed economically and politically.
But neither explanation is an adequate reflection of what occurred.
Judge for yourself. Have another look at the footage (Balls gets up to speak just around the hour mark):
If Balls has a stammer, all credit to him for conquering it, because there is precious little evidence of it here. Equally, whether you agree with his points of view or not, you would be hard pushed to say that he was not a learned man based on yesterday’s performance.
The real issue here is a poorly prepared speech and some pretty basic flaws in delivery.
Truly great speeches are rare. If you’ve ever witnessed one, doubtless it sticks in your mind. Which of us are not familiar with Churchill’s soaring phrases even now, 70 years on. A brilliant platform speech or an excellent advocate’s performance in court is so compelling because it seems so simple, so effortless and so natural: it is obviously anything but.
Much was made of Balls’s stumbling over his words at the beginning of his oration –saying that the National debt was not rising when he meant to say that it was, but that’s not why his speech was bad, it was the rest of it. He tried to use much too much detail. There was a veritable blizzard of percentages and numbers and amongst them his central messages were lost.
Perhaps it looked good on paper when he was preparing it to refer to this old forecast and that old forecast and current forecasts and reforecasts from the Chancellor and the OBR and to say who had missed what and when, but on the public stage it was all just a dull, confusing mess. No wonder it was so easy for him to trip himself up, he was trying to be too clever by half.
Thirdly, of course the house of commons is a noisy arena and no doubt there are problems being heard, but that makes it all the more necessary for speakers to modulate their delivery. Too much of what Balls said yesterday was delivered at the top of the crescendo, with no cadence or variation in pitch and the audience was denied signposts to follow. No wonder Balls had to keep saying that people should listen to him, it was clear that the substance of what he was saying was largely being ignored.
The key to a great speech is preparation. And that of course is the big problem with the autumn budget response – it’s a reaction to what’s just been delivered only minutes ago. It is next to impossible in that context to deliver a cogent, detailed response to a speech which the Chancellor and his treasury team have had weeks to prepare and the real mistake is to try.
For no doubt Balls did prepare for his big day, just not well enough or in the right way. His speech should have been a swift and punchy affair. Short sentences. A broad brush dismissal. He could then have learned it off-by heart because when the time comes to give it, when the blood is up and in the heat of the moment, there is too much at stake to be looking at notes, to be worrying over compound sentence structures and fussing over byzantine details.
Most importantly, a short, pithy speech would have been more malleable and adaptable, more able to have shoe-horned into it at the last minute, a few sharp jabs at the Chancellor’s freshly exposed undercarriage.
Balls stumbled yesterday because he took on too much; more than anyone would have expected. More’s the pity.