I made myself some ground rules for this. One is that I would only count speeches made by Members of Parliament in parties that had at least two MPs in the House of Commons when the speech was delivered. Otherwise, I’d get lost in the weeds – there are loads of terrible speeches given by local councillors, for instance, ones that are several degrees worse than anything on the list to come in strictly aesthetic terms. Smaller party politicians have given some shocking lectures over the years as well.
What I’m after are the worst speeches delivered by people at the top of British politics; people we had every right to expect better of, in other words. Another rule I applied was that there could be no more than one speech from any particular figure on the list. Otherwise, what is to follow could have been called “the worst speeches given by Theresa May and Ed Miliband”.
And so, in descending order, here are the worst five speeches given by frontline British politicians in the 21st century (at least, so far):
5. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour conference speech
His first as party leader, Corbyn’s maiden speech to conference as the big cheese is mostly remembered for a gaffe he made. A note within the text that should have been expunged from the autocue which read “strong message here” was actually read out loud by Corbyn. It’s the kind of thing that would have haunted a better political figure, one that wasn’t prone to much worse.
The mistake isn’t why this speech makes the list. It’s here because Corbyn’s eventual defeat, everything that was wrong with him and his movement, is all here, on full display. The speech itself is relentlessly boring and remarkably free of substance. For a guy who was supposed to shake up the established way of doing things, it is remarkable how free of any original ideas he seemed to be in his first big set piece.
If you want to understand why Corbyn eventually got politically crushed, it was all there in 2015.
4. Jo Swinson launching the 2019 Lib Dem general election campaign
I don’t think any political speech has ever personally disappointed me as much as this one did. It was watching two things I didn’t want to happen unfold at once: one was the end of the Lib Dem resurgence that had happened since the summer of 2019, and with it the end of the party; the other was Brexit definitely happening, and probably a very harsh version of it at that. For in this short speech, the leader of the Lib Dems demonstrated that her party were woefully unprepared for the election ahead.
The mistakes got worse and were doubled down on via the horrid campaign strategy that was yet to unfold, and yet in Jo’s launch the writing was fully on the wall. The talk about her becoming prime minister. No strategy at all around how to stop Brexit nor how they were going to overcome the fact that to people on the left, they were the party of austerity and tuition fees and to people on the right, the party of trans-activism and soggy soft left values and policies.
So much of what has happened since in British politics was prefaced here.
3. Theresa May’s 2017 Conservative party conference speech
There are two amazing things about this speech from my perspective. One is that the fact that there are two speeches worse than this already in this still young century gives one a real idea of how in trouble our political class really is. The second is that May managed to hang on as leader of her party for a further 21 months after delivering this turkey.
Part of the reason it is so bad is, yes, she was clearly feeling rotten. The letters falling off the sign behind her and the prankster who handed her the P45 aren’t really her fault either. Yet even after stripping all of that away, this is still a terrible speech, one in a series of awful ones delivered by May during her fractious time as prime minister. I mean, I could have picked almost any speech between the summer of 2018 and when she stepped down in 2019 here, so it wasn’t like the 2017 conference speech was an isolated incident.
The 2017 speech demonstrates exactly why the Tories should have ditched her immediately after the catastrophic general election of that year. There are no ideas in the speech; no answer for why her party failed so badly a few months previous. Just a lot of hot air on Brexit that we later found out for sure she didn’t believe a word of.
2. Liz Truss’ speech to Conservative party conference, 2014
A conference speech delivered when Truss was DEFRA Secretary, this should be the worst speech ever given by any British politician, ever – the fact that I can pick out a worse one delivered in the last two decades reflects badly on the state of British politics.
There is so much to say about this speech. It’s almost so bad it’s good; think of this as The Room of British political speeches. For a start, it’s the way Truss delivers it – in a sort of confused yet upbeat haze, as if she had suffered a heavy head injury and then taken a load of amphetamines to keep herself awake. A hallmark of the speech is how many long, inappropriate pauses there are in it, as if Truss were making the whole thing up off the top of her head and found herself struggling for the next line several times. Or as if she was hallucinating applause where there wasn’t any.
She begins by saying that she is “infatuated with British food” in a way that is slightly unsettling before moving onto a comparison between herself and Ed Miliband which feels like it lasts for six years. She trots out lines like, ‘Conference, this is not about targets and turbines!’ and then seems shocked when she doesn’t get a clap for it.
If you watch the whole thing (and here it is, if you fancy it), you might get past the awkward, David Brent-esque first few minutes and figure that Truss has settled down into a dull, run of the mill conference speech. Yet watch until the end (it’s only 11 and a half minutes, a fact that continually astounds me to this day) – during the last three minutes, she goes completely off the deep end. It’s rightly the stuff of legend.
This Truss speech is notable amongst political nerds for two lines, both of them contained within these golden final three minutes. One is when she extrapolates on how much cheese we import before telling the crowd “That is a disgrace!” in a manner that is unquestionably hilarious; the other is when she tells the crowd she is going to Beijing to open new pork markets before striking a goofy pose. They are beloved for how camp the delivery of both of these lines are; what I’ve never seen commented on is the fact that they are utterly contradictory.
One moment, Truss is shouting about how importing food is a “disgrace”; in the next, about how we need to open up markets to free trade. There is no attempt whatsoever to explain the friction between protecting your internal market from external competition and opening things up as much as possible so that your suppliers have access to larger external markets. Nope, in Liz’s world, somehow we’re going to be super-protectionist and super-free trading at the exact same time.
In other words, more than a year before the EU referendum campaigns really got underway, here are all of the problems of Brexit and Truss’ subsequent tenure as International Trade Secretary displayed in a nice eleven and a half minute package, complete with campy faces and poses.
Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the classic final line of the speech, delivered in by now classic Liz Truss style: “I will not rest until the British apple is back at the top of the tree!”
- Ed Miliband’s 2014 conference speech
There are several speeches made by Ed Miliband that would have definitely made this list had I not had the “one person, one entry” rule. His resignation speech, where in the midst of Labour having lost almost all of Scotland, his shadow chancellor having been beaten in his seat and the Tories getting a majority no one thought was possible, Ed thought he’d lighten the mood with a shout out to his Milifans, is worse than some of the others I’ve listed already in this article.
But given I could only pick one Ed M masterpiece, nothing else comes even close to how bad this speech is. The 2014 Labour leader’s speech is the ne plus ultra of terrible political speeches. I would be shocked if anything for the rest of this century displaced this doozy.
I had the pleasure of being in the crowd in Manchester myself for this one. My favourite memory of it was an older lady swivelling her head in every direction, clearly trying to gauge other people’s reactions to the apocalypse unfolding in front of her. The kind of thing one does at a really bad movie, wondering if everyone is as shocked as you are at the poor quality of what is on display.
The first twenty-five minutes of the speech – twenty-five – is Ed recounting random stories of meeting people in posh parts of north London. It’s a little look into Ed’s world. He is mistaken for Benedict Cumberbatch. Young people approach him to say things like “My generation is falling into a black hole”. A little boy compares him to Superman.
I think the impression this section was supposed to convey was one of Ed Miliband as a normal person, out on the doorstep, talking to people across the country. Except, it does the exact opposite, painting Miliband as a weirdo who hangs out in NW3 chatting up upper-middle class students when he isn’t being mistaken for Benedict Cumberbatch on Hampstead Heath.
I remember the bar at the Midland hotel the evening after the speech. It was full of young Labour researchers, many whom had come to Manchester with the dream of becoming a SpAd in clear sight, now drinking away their sorrows and talking to each other about what they’ll do after the general election defeat in half a year’s time. Sometimes, a political speech can have profound effects, particularly when they are the opposite of what was intended.