Hung Parliament Horror – How the pain of the outcome was visible in the body language of Brown, Cameron and Clegg

It was a long, sleepless night for many – but for three men in particular, the morning after the night before provided little relief. After hours of waiting, the dreaded result of Hung Parliament was revealed – and following this, all three leaders each gave a speech in public. This body language analysis of the three leaders during their speeches reveals some secrets about how they really took the news.

At 12:45pm on 07 May 2010, Gordon Brown strode out of 10 Downing Street with a speech in his hands. He looked characteristically very tired and worse for wear – his eyes were puffier than ever and his skin appeared a tinge of grey. On the theme of physical appearance, his shirt was slightly creased and his tie was not level – these may seem like irrelevant observations, however, this is the sort of attention to detail that a (proud) Prime Minister is usually very aware of.

Brown’s lectern was positioned at a great distance from his audience, which made him especially detached from the crowd. His posture was rigid and strong, however, his feet were very close together and arms did not extend much; which showed his inability to dominate space and demonstrate his authority.
Brown’s speech was monotonous and the places that he stuttered were very significant as they revealed his inner anxiety about particular issues. For example, he stuttered twice on the sentence: “I therefore felt that I should give you and through you the country, my assessment of where we are”. His stuttering indicated he had extreme discomfort about explaining the state of the country at that present moment – perhaps because of his nervousness that he might not be prime minister for much longer.

Throughout Brown’s speech, he showed many characteristics of anxiety such as his nervous jaw drop and the way he fiddled with the paper in front of him after he had turned the pages over. In addition to this, an imperative observation is the way his hands clasped together in a closed prayer position when he stated: “(then I would of course be prepared to discuss with Mr Clegg) the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties.” The prayer position is a pleading gesture, which hints at Brown’s helplessness and desperation for Clegg’s help. When Brown finished his speech, he turned around and walked away slowly and sombrely and represented the ‘defeated man’ – it reminded me of the sort of walk someone would take if they were following a coffin out of a church.

When Nick Clegg gave his speech, he positioned himself in the middle of a large crowd of people – immediately building rapport by becoming ‘one of the crowd’. He also instantly reinforced the image of him being ‘a man of the people’. He began his speech with a small pun: “Thank you for coming in such small numbers to Downing Street this morning” – this was a great ‘ice breaker’ and transformed the tense atmosphere. Clegg was immediately confident in his gestures with hands raised and fingers spread wide – not afraid to use the space around him, especially when so cramped with cameras and many people around him. He spoke honestly and nodded to affirm points such as: “Last night was a disappointment for the Liberal Democrats.”

His suppressed anger was symbolised when his hand subconsciously lashed out to accompany the phrase: “we have returned to Parliament with fewer MPs than before”. His anger was also shown by the way he changed his facial expression and displayed his full set of teeth (an aggressive gesture) when he stated: “…but it seems that when they came to vote, many of them, in the end, decided to stick with what they knew best”.

Clegg frequently licked his lips and his dry mouth indicated his high level of anxiety. He also stopped to swallow very noticeably and pursed his lips together at the end of sentences – these are all indicators of nervousness. When describing how he felt the voters had abandoned him and stuck to what they knew best when it came to voting day, he raised his eyebrows which gave him an air of innocence – perhaps this was a weapon to get the voters on side or make them feel guilty.
As per usual, Clegg was very active with his hand gestures, however, his palms often faced upwards – which indicated his gestures were more of a pleading nature than a self-assured nature. Overall, Clegg came across as slightly nervous and evidently disappointed, however very genuine in his message.

David Cameron walked into the room looking every inch the (could-be future) Prime Minister. His attire was smart, he held his head high and his stride to the lectern was powerful and assertive. He also looked surprisingly fresh-faced considering the little sleep he would have had the night before.

He focussed his attention on different areas of the audience– presenting different sections of his speech to the left/right of the room. He did not let the paper he was reading off become part of his ‘speech performance’ like Brown did, and instead only looked down very briefly when checking up on his notes.

His sincerity was shown by his pauses at appropriate places, so that the audience could absorb certain points, for example, he paused briefly after saying: “I want to say a huge thank you.” He was very sincere when thanking Nick Clegg in his speech and this was validated by the way he kept a fixed gaze into the audience when he said the phrase: “and I thank him for that.” It was not clear whether Nick Clegg was present in the room at that point – however Cameron’s fixed gaze and pause was enough to show his sincerity, wherever Clegg was. Cameron frequently paused briefly and pursed his lips together at the end of his sentences which indicated his anxiety and high pressure in this situation – probably because he was concentrating so hard to not get anything wrong.

Cameron gesticulated in harmony with significant parts of speech such as “…and to remind you how proud you can be of the result: a bigger increase in seats even than Mrs Thatcher achieved in 1979”. During this part of the speech, he gestured by pointing his finger and also closed his fist to reveal a ‘Clinton Thumb’ gesture. The ‘Clinton Thumb’ gesture; which is a positive, optimistic gesture frequently used by politicians, is something he displayed throughout his speech. He used dominant gestures so that he could emphasise the importance to be proud of certain things and not be down about the result.
His vocal stress on certain phrases such as: “Britain needs strong, stable, decisive government” was an effective way of emphasising points and associating himself with them. On the phrase: “we fell short of an overall majority”, his lips pursed together and his speech became quieter – showing his anxiety at the content of this statement.

Even though we never saw behind his lectern, Cameron moved around on the spot frequently and was not afraid to use space to show his dominance as a leader. Some of Cameron’s suppressed anger was released when he stated: “But no government will be in the national interest unless it deals with the biggest threat to our national interest – and that is the deficit.” During this statement, he pointed repeatedly with his index finger towards the audience, which comes across as an aggressive (yet assertive) gesture. Overall, Cameron came across as confident and forceful, but clearly under a lot of pressure and stress.

In summary, all three leaders showed anxiety and this was strongly leaked through body language. Gordon Brown showed anxiety mixed with desperation and pleaded with Nick Clegg in a way that translated as him saying: “I’m ready and waiting – give me a chance/help”.
Nick Clegg showed anxiety mixed with frustration. It was evident that he felt like he had been showered with emotion during campaigning and then neglected when it mattered most. It was almost as if the voters had been infidels and he was stating that he was aware the audience had ‘cheated on him’, but he was able to see why.
David Cameron showed tension mixed with assertiveness – so his speech was very strong. It was clear through his body language that he was stressed about getting things right; however he turned his nervousness into positive energy and came across as a very assertive leader.

© 2010 Alicia Drewnicki