Why the Cameron and Clegg handshake was a game of ‘power ping-pong’

At last, not only do we have a new government, but we have a coalition government for the first time in seventy years. Gordon Brown’s hand-holding quartet featuring his wife Sarah and his two very sweet little boys provoked a few tears last night, however those tears rapidly dried as heads turned towards the birth of a fresh and exciting ‘Cameron-Clegg power-fusion’ that promised to offer a ‘new kind of government.’
So, with all eyes on Cameron and Clegg, what better way for them to mark the new Lib/Tory bond than with a public display of affection outside 10 Downing Street ? The new Prime Minister and his deputy looked equally delighted this morning and happily shook hands on the steps leading to the infamous black door.
But what exactly did this handshake reveal?

Well, firstly, touch is a vital aspect of all human relationships as it indicates compliance, reassurance and a common bond. Cameron and Clegg used the public gesture of the handshake as a physical way of saying: “We are now united”.
The initiator of the handshake is an important factor in the power stakes – and in this case, David Cameron exited 10 Downing Street with his hand immediately stretched out, ready to shake. An important, often unnoticed aspect of a handshake is the ‘non-shaking hand’. The strength of the tie between two people as well as the power hierarchy can be revealed by looking at what the non-shaking hand is doing. Immediately after their hands united, Clegg’s left arm reached across to touch Cameron’s elbow. This was not only a further way of illustrating their bond, but it was also a way of showing to the audience that Clegg was dominant (as he grasped Cameron and took up more of their shared public space). David Cameron quickly ended this possible assumption of Clegg’s dominance by raising his left hand (a positive, gravity-defying gesture) with his fingers spread widely in order to quickly gain more territory and reinstate his power. He whispered something to Clegg at this point (inaudible), and in order to remain ‘connected’ and not to seem like he was dominating too strongly, he softened his gesture sequence by moving his hand onto Clegg’s shoulder for a ‘half-embrace’. Clegg then reinstated his power by pointing his left hand out as a signal for both of them to stop the embrace and turn to the audience. This meeting seemed like a sort of ‘power ping-pong’ match, where both leaders constantly took it in turns to be the ‘one in control’.

Mirroring behaviour is essential to show people are synchronised in body and mind, and this was certainly clear between Clegg and Cameron. After their handshake, they both turned to the camera at the same time, and Cameron waved at the audience, which Clegg quickly copied (thus showing his synchronisation and compliance). Shortly after this, Cameron tapped Clegg on the shoulder in a sort of congratulatory pat – the same sort of pat you’d give someone if they had done well in a sporting match. However, sticking to the game of ‘power ping-pong’, Clegg returned this ‘pat on the back’ gesture when Cameron started to walk into 10 Downing Street.
As a final way of saying: “I’m the boss, but I do like Clegg”, Cameron turned round and gave a cheeky last wave to the cameras, before following Clegg into 10 Downing Street, continuing the back patting gesture like he was an old friend.

One thing for certain is that Cameron and Clegg normalised their arrangement very quickly and the body language between them was very promising. The fusion between the two parties means the body language between our new Prime Minister and his deputy is going to be an extremely important area of analysis in the upcoming months. It will reveal to us exactly how strong the new relationship is between the leaders, and it will show if they are heading in the same direction, or if any cracks are starting to surface.

© 2010 Alicia Drewnicki