May 15, 2010


Cameron and Clegg: what is their body language really saying?: David Cameron and Nick Clegg look alike, sound alike, and come from equally privileged backgrounds - but just how similar are they in reality? Leading body language expert James Borg scrutinised the new Prime Minister and his deputy during their crucial first few days in office. Here, he reveals the unspoken signs (James Borg, 15 May 2010, Daily Telegraph)

After the introductory handshake, we saw both men pat each other on the back, a signal which neuropsychologists refer to as a “parental” gesture. And what do most parents signify with this movement to their young? “I’m in charge.” It’s a status reminder, and can be especially important in the 'first among equals’ situation in which Cameron and Clegg now find themselves.

But their body language was more complex than that. Cameron patted Clegg first, who reciprocated with a pat of his own. Cameron then patted back, and Clegg did the same… before Cameron gave the assertive final pat with his right – dominant – hand as he ushered his deputy through the door. This was both a classic repeat display of courtship, and a barely concealed power struggle. Crucially, by doling out the final pat, Cameron had the last word in the vernacular.

The press conference that followed was a chance to meet the “newlyweds”. Cameron came across as more assured, more prime ministerial in his manner and delivery, making frequent references to his new partner by gesticulating towards him with his right hand. When he gives a speech, Cameron has an unconscious habit of splaying his fingers, an open-hand gesture that projects trustworthiness. This in stark contrast to the closed, clunking fist deployed by the previous resident of Number 10.

Clegg, in between looking at his notes, attempted his now-signature delivery technique of looking straight ahead. However, with his general facial expressions more subdued than usual, he glanced down more than Cameron – a sure sign of nerves. After all, he had something to be nervous and indeed embarrassed about, after being exposed earlier in the week as having been in talks on the sly with Labour – the romantic equivalent of an “ex-girlfriend” – before finally deciding to go to the altar with the Conservatives.

When Clegg spoke, it was interesting to note that Cameron orientated his entire body towards him. When we are completely at ease and interested in another person, we turn not just our head but our whole body – and often the feet – towards them.

When Cameron spoke of the challenges facing his administration, Clegg only turned his head in his direction. He also displayed a number of micro-expressions, fleeting subconscious gestures that last between three and five seconds, but which display discomfort. Clegg bit his lip on a number of occasions and touched the inside of his mouth with his tongue. This was noticeable especially when the subject of proportional representation was raised, and when it was announced that Clegg would be standing in at Prime Minister’s Questions when Cameron was otherwise engaged in “lots of foreign travel”. What could Clegg be worried about – stepping up to the mark?

There was a change in Clegg’s later demeanour. As the Prime Minister spoke, Clegg orientated his whole body and feet towards him – a noticeable shift. As the prime minister answered questions, Clegg began to give nods and respectful glances. Rather than implying complete agreement, this usually suggests something more crucial to a working relationship – deference. Clegg is acknowledging that, although he is now a powerful player, Cameron is very much the man in charge.

Perhaps the most extraordinary – and entertaining – part of the conference came in response to a journalist’s reminder that Cameron had once called Clegg “a joke”. Their playful riposte offers hope for this coalition. The mock indignation as Clegg walked away and Cameron, leaning on the lectern, urging him plaintively to “Come back!” suggests there is more than a degree of mutual liking between the two. Both felt sufficiently at ease to be playful in public with each other, and the way they both responded in jest reflects that degree of comfort. We never saw such antics with New Labour, whose ministers were never at ease with themselves, let alone with the Opposition.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2010 9:51 AM
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