As the country prepares for an unexpected barrage of campaign rhetoric Professor Alan Finlayson analyses Theresa May’s opening shot and speculates on what might come next.
Theresa May’s surprise speech announcing a General Election, is rhetorically rather clever. She uses language to position herself favorably in the campaign to come. But it’s also risky, creating clear opportunities for her opponents.
Every clever schoolchild has worked out that the first thing you do in answering an essay question is to redefine it so that you can say whatever it was you wanted to say. The same principle can be applied in political debates. The party which defines what the debate is really about improves its chances of winning. That is why politicians will try to make a debate about, say, economic policy into one about competence or trust. Roman rhetoricians likened this to finding the ‘fulcrum’ of an argument, the point over which opinion was divided. The trick is to find a point where the distribution of opinion is unbalanced in a way that favors you. If opinion is split 55-45 on a vote about environmental regulation maybe you can redefine the question as one about ‘the overwhelming power of the state’ and put more numbers in your column.
In her speech calling for an election Theresa May used such rhetoric to try and define two debates at once.
The first of these is the question of whether or not there should be an election at all. Under current rules the UK Prime Minister cannot call an election. But she can propose one and put it to a vote in the House of Commons. The risk is that in so doing she might look opportunistic – exactly what the rules are meant to be prevent. So, May tries to do two things. The first is to make out that she is only reluctantly calling this vote. She says as much, adding that she is just doing what is ‘necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs’. She also tries to describe that Commons vote as about something other than an election. Rather, it is about letting ‘everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for Government’ and removing the ‘risk of uncertainty and instability’ and ensuring ‘strong and stable leadership’.
The UK is at the start of a period of complex and profound negotiations demanding the full focus of government and the subtlest of strategies. Here is the Prime Minister unexpectedly complicating that process further with an election certainly intended to enhance her personal power. But she defines the situation in the opposite way, implying that voting against the election is a vote for uncertainty and instability. That’s a bold rhetorical move.
It’s also only half of the story.