We don’t need to punch above our weight. This was the most delightfully subversive line in Theresa May’s Brexit speech. For years, Foreign Office types have been telling us they will enable us to punch above our weight. It was a cliche which suggested deep insecurity, allied to a vainglorious estimate of their own abilities.
The new Prime Minister – after 81 days, one can still call her new – said in her speech that our weight is substantial enough already. We can be ourselves, instead of pretending to be bigger and rougher than we really are. If Brexit means being ourselves, it will only become more popular.
A convinced Eurosceptic who was standing beside me during May’s speech applauded heartily at the end, and declared: “I can’t remember the last time when I heard a Tory Prime Minister give a speech in which I agreed with every word.”
Her speech was only about one thing, which made it easier to avoid the tactful insincerities in which even Prime Ministers sometimes find themselves engaging. But it nevertheless had an agreeable straightness about it, which means the press will describe it as “uncompromising”.
The next few speakers were not especially inspiring, but to have several platform speeches all in a row, and all on the topic of Brexit, was not a very inspiring way of doing things. Boris Johnson was the only speaker who managed to transcend this limited genre. He began by relating a conversation with another foreign minister, from a country he declined to name, in order to “preserve my reputation for diplomacy”.
The country in question has “an economy about the size of Australia (though getting smaller, alas), plenty of snow, nuclear missiles, balalaikas, oligarchs” and a “leader who strips to the waist”.
The foreign minister of this nameless land complained to Johnson: “It was you guys who imposed democracy on us in 1990.” This set up a discourse about the battle for western liberalism since the fall of the Berlin Wall (which actually occurred in 1989), including the mistaken theory of Francis Fukuyama about the end of history; “the eternal and inalienable right of the media to make fun of politicians”; the severe setbacks to western self-confidence caused by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash in 2008; a few paragraphs about the ivory trade in order to bring in a line about “the absurd situation where Europe is trying to veto the ivory ban in spite of having a President called Donald Tusk”; and a hymn to British soft power during which the speaker elicited cheers for the BBC. Global Britain, you will be pleased to know, is now a soft power superpower, its gentle gunboats skippered by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and J.K.Rowling.
The hall was exhilarated by this tour d’horizon, but a correspondent of a serious frame of mind said he was not sure the Foreign Secretary has yet managed to sound serious enough. You can’t please everyone.
There is a fine bookstall at this conference, with an admirable collection of books. At 5.15 in the afternoon, when I at last got there, about half a dozen potential customers were browsing the shelves with pleasure, and some were even looking for someone to whom they could hand over good money. But the bookseller had left a message by the till saying that because of the Sunday trading laws, he or she had left at 5.00 and would not be back until 10.00 the following morning. This seemed a pity, but such is the vanity of authors that I strongly approve of this bookseller, who has seen fit to stock Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson, the new and fully updated edition of my life of a man who used to be the Conservative Party’s Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.
The conference slogan, “A country that works for everyone”, is displayed everywhere, and could easily drive one mad. I am thinking of founding a party which will stand up for the privileged few.