The Empathy in PM Resignation Speeches: Where is it?

Oct 21, 2022 | Communication, Empathy, Leadership, Politics

The Empathy in PM Resignation Speeches: Where is it?

Resignation speeches can be the most personal portrayal a politician ever offers. These speeches may be carefully constructed, but they still represent a moment of vulnerability, when perhaps the mask slips, allowing us a glimpse of who they are, and where their priorities lie. If they empathise with the electorate, the evidence should lie in their resignation speeches somewhere.

Boris Johnson resigned by reminding us of how great he was as Prime Minister. He listed achievement after achievement, overlooking the lying, cheating, law breaking, and letting the public down, that dominate third party accounts of his time in office, before reassuring us, “I know that Liz Truss and this compassionate Conservative government will do everything we can to get people through this crisis.”

Theresa May seemed to shed a human tear when she resigned. Rather than feel sorry for her, we felt that the tear rolled for the damage she’d done to herself and her career, rather than for the rest of us. May failed to understand the public and the public failed to understand May. Empathy travelled in neither direction. When May danced, she looked like a robot. There was the proof we needed. Robots lack empathy. In a bid to counter this belligerent belief, May told us, “We have helped more people than ever enjoy the security of a job,” failing to understand or acknowledge the reality that jobs no longer guarantee security for people who have to rely on charities and foodbanks to stay alive.

David Cameron’s role as PM was ended by his own hubris and obvious lack of empathic understanding of the electorate’s intentions, in the EU referendum. In his resignation speech he told us, “For me, politics has always been about public service in the national interest. It is simple to say but often hard to do.” So hard that even after his resignation Cameron could only continue to focus on serving himself and expressing empathy for his favourite financial services company, lobbying former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to change rules and allow Greensill, to join the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, a government loan scheme introduced to support needy companies during the pandemic-related recession. As Cameron became richer and richer, the rest of us became poorer and poorer.

When a Prime Minister resigns it is not because they have served the public, it is because they have failed the public. Sometimes the costs of their mistakes can be so great that it is too painful to comprehend or contemplate. In these monstrous moments, we get an idea of how much empathy these dictators of destiny have for those they have let down. Of course, empathy should be a fundamental requirement of political leadership, but these affluent acquaintances of hedge-funders never manage to demonstrate any understanding of the lives of others?

Our country has just lost the leadership of Prime Minister Liz Truss. In her resignation speech, just six weeks after taking the role, she related not to how her leadership may have impacted others, but to her own experience, reminding everyone of how difficult the context of her Premiership was, implicitly asking us for empathy and compassion. She said, “I came into office at a time of great economic and international instability. Families and businesses were worried about how to pay their bills.” This last sentence might seem empathic, but was Truss expressing empathy, or listing facts to make her appear more favourably? Truss continued, “Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine threatens the security of our whole continent. And our country had been held back for too long by low economic growth.” Yet these conditions failed to deter her, “I was elected by the Conservative Party with a mandate to change this.” Truss is suggesting here that we were lucky to have her as our leader and that whilst we looked on in horror at what she did, we should have been looking forward to things improving.

According to Truss, things did improve for us. “We delivered on energy bills and on cutting national insurance. And we set out a vision for a low tax, high growth economy – that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit.” So, what happened?

Truss failed to offer an explanation, instead cutting to, “I recognise though, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.” Just one sentence with the sole excuse of there being a ‘situation,’ not what it was, or who was to blame for it. This was all said without emotion too. I wonder if Oxford University trains its politics students to replace emotion with arrogance, and to then tell everyone that it is not arrogance, but confidence. Events assured us it was arrogance. Truss soon had to explain herself to the King. “I have therefore spoken to His Majesty The King, to notify him that I am resigning as Leader of the Conservative Party.” This line is carefully devised to reassure us that the Conservative Party will find another Prime Minister for us. A better one, who won’t fail. Except they all fail us, don’t they.

“This morning I met the Chair of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady,” Truss told us, provoking an image for the hungry masses queuing at foodbanks of a man with a mouth full of Maltesers. “We have agreed there will be a leadership election to be completed in the next week.” The collective sighs of relief could be heard from Edinburgh to Exeter, and across the EU. But Truss went further still, “This will ensure we remain on a path to deliver our fiscal plans and maintain our country’s economic stability and national security.” This after her fiscal plans, The Conservative Party’s fiscal plans, had been implemented and reversed within several disastrous days of economic turmoil and financial loss to the country. This is the ‘situation’ Truss referred to.

As if to put our mounting worries and fears to rest, Truss then told us, “I will remain as Prime Minister until a successor has been chosen.” And that was it. Truss was gone after a brief insincere, “Thank you.” Forty-two days of trashing the economy and making anyone without the knowledge to take up a suitable market position poorer, Truss did not apologise to us or empathise with us. Truss thanked us. It is as if, like her three Prime Ministerial predecessors, Liz Truss will be far better off than we will be after having been our Country’s political leader. For that at least Liz Truss wants us to know that she is grateful, but there’s no suggestion of her having any empathy.

If we are ever fortunate enough to have an empathic leader of our country, who understands our lives, and works to make them better, empathy will travel in both directions, bringing mutual understanding and respect. For such a leader, there may be no need to write a resignation speech.


Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

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