From Tony Blair’s wheeled shelf to Boris Johnson’s massive podium to Rishi Sunak’s recycled wood: a curious British tradition wants every prime minister to have a personalized lectern designed to speak in front of 10 Downing Street. One way to also read the style of government. But the most famous debut is without the lectern, with Margaret Thatcher …
Until recently, few knew a curious tradition that exists in the UK: every new prime minister can have a personalized lectern right from his first speech in front of 10 Downing Street. This was clearly noticed with Liz Truss’ quirky design and continual change of premieres, no less than six in the past seven years. Varying in the shapes, sizes and colors of the wood, the public began to wonder what each lectern revealed about the person who had chosen it. Here’s how they compare over the past decade.
When Rishi Sunak unveiled his podium on October 25, keen observers immediately noticed that he had broken with tradition. Due to the rapid succession, there has been reportedly no time to fabricate a single lectern for the incoming prime minister (typically takes at least two to three weeks). So the former finance minister chose one from the warehouse: straight and traditional, in light wood. In reality it seemed that he had taken the top of the podium of those who preceded him, attacking it on a considerably shorter base. In fact, Sunak stands just 168cm tall, the shortest male occupant of 10 Downing Street since Winston Churchill.
The choice was somewhat obligatory since a higher lectern would have hidden it from view, but some saw in the simple and robust lectern the efforts of Sunak to present to the public a solid image and a new era of saving and sacrifice. Perhaps the premier, attentive to the environment, thought that the public would appreciate the fact that the recycled music stand has saved taxpayers between 2 and 4 thousand pounds; but he was probably much more surprised to discover that he had footed the bill for his predecessors all these years.
The intertwined column made up of overlapping wooden elements, sported by Liz Truss, is certainly the best known and most expensive of all lecterns to date. He clearly designed it with the intention of leaving his mark and being remembered. But it quickly became a metaphor for the political turmoil that plagued his short stay in Downing Street. The twists and turns that have characterized Truss’s efforts to calm markets and placate its critics have been prophetically reflected in its design choice. The quirky music stand has been likened to the block building game Jenga which eventually collapses, due to its spiral design. It was the shortest-lived lectern in British political history and made the spirals inauspicious for future lecterns.
Bold, cheeky, Boris Johnson has instead opened new horizons when he became the first premier to opt for a two-tier music stand done in a dark brown hue. His lectern was the largest of any 21st century prime minister. According to claims, the massive design was meant to withstand his exuberant temper, and the punches beaten during his very vigorous speeches. But the resemblance to the lecterns used by American presidents in the White House revealed his oversized ego and misplaced sense of superiority and security. And in fact, he was evicted from Downing Street for breaking his own Covid laws.
Theresa May’s music stand was designed by Fiona Hill, her chief of staff, to look feminine. Being elegant and feminine was something the premier was proud of. She was known for her leopard-print shoes, red lipstick and necklaces. In interviews, she described herself as a sensitive person who took things to heart by shedding a tear when she was under a lot of pressure. You chose a simple and linear lectern in cedar wood. The base was wider than the podium and had a light, painted finish. It was slightly darker than that of its predecessor David Cameron, associated with the dark and sad days of Brexit negotiations. It was also one of the most visible lecterns in history as it was very present during the Brexit updates. In hindsight, critics associated the lightweight design with the scarcity of her political achievements. True to her image as a leader, she walked away from her lectern in tears after announcing her resignation as prime minister.
David Cameron rose to power by defeating Labor and sealing his victory on his feet behind the first modern lectern of the Conservatories. He chose a curved, sleek and futuristic design in light wood with a government crest on top. It was designed by Baroness Sugg, his chief of operations, and was designed to give him an image of a statesman. It was also the first music stand entirely finished in wood. Appearing narrower in the center and wider at each end, the hourglass shape has become a metaphor for the division he was accused of having caused due to the Brexit referendum.
Gordon Brown inherited the lectern from his predecessor Tony Blair. Both leaders were considered the architects of the modern “New Labor” era and their lectern represented a metaphor for change. It was the first to be designed on wheels, just like those on office chairs, and the first to be pushed into place rather than lifted. The “floating shelf design” was Tony Blair’s idea. There was enough room for the notes, but he wasn’t tilted like future lecterns to hide them. The usual government crest at the top of the lectern has been replaced with the government website. Two bulky microphones protruded from above. It has become a symbol of Labor leaders’ insistence on doing things their way, which paved the way for a decade of conservatism.
Not all prime ministers, however, were behind a lectern for their first speech. When Margaret Thatcher came to Downing Street, remains famous as he stunned everyone by approaching the press to announce that he wanted to quote a prayer. «I know perfectly well the responsibilities that await me when I enter the door of n. 10 – he said -. And I would just like to recall some words of Saint Francis of Assisi which I consider particularly suitable at this moment. ‘Where there is discord, we can bring harmony. Where there is error, we can bring the truth. Where there is doubt, we can bring faith. And where there is despair, we can bring hope ‘».
It was a historic moment. Never before or since have the first words of a leader hit so well or have remained so fixed in the national consciousness. But those words have also come back to haunt her. The period in office of him certainly was anything but harmonious and Margaret Thatcher’s critics accused her of failing to keep her word. She was certainly a controversial political figure, but Margaret Thatcher at least understood that the challenges of government must be based on great ideals rather than standing out with a great lectern.
Tell me what lectern you use and I will tell you how you will govern