David Cameron

It's political conference season, and every year the three leaders give set-piece speeches designed to wow the party faithful - and the watching media. In the third and final post of the series, linguist Johnny Unger analyses how David Cameron, the Conservative leader, used rhetoric to persuade his listeners.

David Cameron's speech today not only comes after Clegg's and Miliband's chronologically, it also draws heavily on the latter intertextually: in other words, parts of Miliband's speech find their way into Cameron's in various ways.

This underlines the dialogical nature of political speeches - they are always responding to previous political arguments and anticipating future ones, and sometimes even responding to arguments that no one is actually making (this is where we get into the territory of straw man fallacies). So Cameron reuses and ridicules Miliband's refrain of "Britain is better than this", at one point saying (about Labour) that "Britain can do better than that lot", and he also makes frequent references to Labour policies mentioned in the earlier speech - so frequent that some commentators claimed he mentioned more Labour policies than Conservative ones.

However, as @intweed pointed out during the speech, Cameron also reuses many elements of his own earlier speeches, particularly the idea that the Conservatives are "clearing up the mess that Labour left". The main refrain, repeated 15 or more times, was that Cameron wanted to "finish the job" the Conservatives had started.

At various points, through metaphors (thanks to @VeronikaKoller for identifying many of these), gestures, and tone of voice, Cameron presented himself as the tough father of the country, and as someone who was in a position to scold Labour for the "mess" and its "crazy" policies, even using an imperative form to address Labour directly and wagging his finger: "Don't you dare lecture anyone on the NHS again". As the linguist and political commentator George Lakoff has found, parenting metaphors are common in US politics too - Republicans are the stern father, Democrats the nurturing parent. This is not the only link to US politics: like Miliband's "We're better" and "One Nation", the phrase "land of opportunity" has particular resonance in American politics. Cameron is not wholly focused on the US, though: his use of the phrase "the land of hope is Tory" will probably be appreciated (or mocked) by those who see it as an allusion to Elgar's patriotic tune "Land of Hope and Glory".

Like many other politicians, Cameron presents his party and his country as being on a journey. Generally, in journey metaphors forward is good, backwards is bad. By claiming that the choice for the electorate is to either "move forward to something better or go back to something worse", Cameron attempts to rotate the directional schema that Miliband created last week by 90 or even 180 degrees. Miliband said the Tories were on a race to the bottom - Cameron emphasises upwards motion: "Jobs are up, construction is up, construction is up…" He even uses a flying metaphor "100,000 jet planes have soared into the sky on wings made in Britain", and talks about "putting up ladders". He points upwards repeatedly during this passage, reinforcing the verbal metaphor with his body language.

The phrase "hardworking people" is key to Cameron's construction of his party and voters, and is used in attempt to create rapport with listeners (almost everyone thinks of themselves as hardworking) and to create an imagined "other" - benefit claimants, immigrants, "people who could work but don't". Cameron also uses the "-ing form" (gerund or present progressive, depending on how it is used) of other words: "Getting the long-term unemployed back to work. Freezing fuel duty. Backing marriage. Cutting the deficit. Creating jobs. Creating wealth." This might be an attempt to suggest dynamism through actions that are currently in progress.

One thing that appears to fall rather flat (judging from Twitter and news pundit comments, at least) are Cameron's attempts at jokes and self-deprecating humour. Several times he invokes the inadequacy of his body – on the beach, when arm-wrestling with Putin – in an echo of Miliband's joke about being a super-hero. As far as "little stories" go, Cameron starts not by invoking his own parents, as do the other two leaders, but with Margaret Thatcher - as some might argue, his spiritual mother. Cameron also mentions current Government cabinet ministers - this points to the function of leaders speeches in establishing rapport and boosting morale within the party, as well as their functions in electoral politics. It allows for what might be seen as a more "genuine" interaction than those reported in the speaker's stories (e.g. about "Emily and James" in this speech, or about the "40 year-old black man" Cameron infamously mentioned in 2010's election debate).

No doubt many listeners wondered whether Cameron would explicitly mention the ongoing argument over the Daily Mail's attack on Ralph Miliband. While Cameron does not seem to allude to this in an obvious way, he does call the opposition leader "Red Ed" at one point, a label that has repeatedly been used in media coverage of Ed Miliband's policies, along with references to "1970s Socialism", which Cameron also mentions. Like Labour's use of the slogan "One Nation" (see last week's analysis), this may be an example of "calculated ambivalence": by deliberately choosing a nickname so prominently employed by the Daily Mail, he may be trying to signal to the paper's readers that he is not wholly unsympathetic to their views.