With all the focus on the Tory leadership candidates’ policies, there hasn’t been much attention given to a more superficial but no less important question: do they act like a prime minister?
In his leadership campaign video released on Tuesday, Nadhim Zahawi says, “I will publish my tax returns so no one can be under any doubt about my financial affairs.” In the middle of the sentence, his left eye involuntary contorts and performs a strange, unintended tic. It’s the briefest thing, and apparently, no one in his team noticed.
Someone who did was speechwriter Simon Lancaster. He’s been writing speeches for high-profile politicians like Alan Johnson and Patricia Hewitt since the 1990s, and his recent book, Connect!: How to Inspire, Influence and Energise Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime, examines the art of powerful public communication. He thinks Zahawi’s twitch was an example of his body language “leaking” his discomfort about releasing his tax returns.
Lancaster tells the Hound that although all the candidates are desperate to project strength, not all of them are succeeding: “A lot of them just don’t have the body language, they don’t have the gravitas”.
He gives Zahawi’s tic as an example, adding that Tom Tugendhat is rather ”swivel-eyed”. In contrast, he finds Truss’s steady poise quite impressive and says that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt both also emanate that all-important sense of confidence and stability.
But strength isn’t everything. Lancaster thinks it must always be tempered or balanced by warmth. Liz Truss’s blatant evocation of Mrs Thatcher might well exude a certain steeliness, but there’s also a coldness, a lack of empathy in her presentation that could prove to be her downfall.
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“Truss looks really uptight,” he says — making the same point about Keir Starmer — and suggests that voters often struggle to connect with politicians who exhibit this particular flaw. Again, he praises Tory hopefuls Sunak and Hunt; they seem appropriately relaxed where others don’t, which enables them in turn to appear more trustworthy.
But Lancaster wouldn’t bet on either of them, it turns out (he thinks that Hunt is too reminiscent of David Cameron and that Sunak’s recent troubles with his wife’s non-dom status “will come back to bite him”).
Penny Mordaunt, he says, is the one to watch. “She looks like a leader and sounds like a leader, and simultaneously emits strength and warmth. All of the other candidates fail on one or other of those criteria.”
Though Mordaunt’s promotional video seemed a little dated and rather like a parody in places, it transmitted some powerful signals of patriotism which will surely be warmly received by Tory voters.
And that, Lancaster says, is all that matters. People will vote in this race based not on intellect, but on the impressions the candidates have created.
The race continues.