David Davis’s speech in Vienna today contained many positive messages, both to the citizens and residents of the UK, and to the EU. That Britain would continue to be a champion for the values of freedom and democracy. That it is in our interests for our neighbours and allies to thrive. That our intended relationship is therefore co-operative and supportive and productive.
None of that quite made it into the headlines, however. Instead, the newspapers reported in advance that the Brexit Secretary was set to promise that Britain would not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.”
That’s not an unreasonable thing of them to report. It was indeed a remark included in his speech. And more than that, it was one of the remarks selected by his press team to include in the pre-briefed press release publicising his speech in advance.
Given that this eye-catching quote was written for him, pushed out to the press on purpose, and then said in words that came out of his mouth, the papers were only doing their job in reporting it. Given the colourful language and its inclusion in the press release, it seems that someone actively desired this quote to be reported.
That’s all quite clear. What I cannot get my head round is quite why someone would think this a good line to put out. It is an inherently negative point, out of keeping with a pretty positive speech.
It invites mockery (and has duly received it), and it is an obvious gift to those who leap on any opportunity to rant on about what a disaster Brexit is and how callous the Government must be to pursue it. “Oh, well, if Brexit doesn’t mean a blood-soaked apocalyptic desert, whose best resident is sweaty Mel Gibson, then I suppose we should be grateful” is a predictable response from the ever-smug ranks of the pro-EU Twitterati. The wound was self-inflicted.
This doesn’t suggest an operation which is completely on top of its own message discipline, to say the least. Think back through the great messages of history – none of them would be improved by making them about the negative things that would be avoided, rather than the positivity that was on offer.
Harold Macmillan didn’t proclaim: “You’ve had it worse”. The Obama poster didn’t promise: “Not despair”. And Margaret Thatcher read the whole of the St Francis of Assisi prayer, pledging harmony, truth, faith and hope, not just noting that the alternatives were nasty.
The six Brexit speeches, of which this is the second, are meant to be a big push to get the Government’s message across. Let’s hope the next four are communicated a bit better in advance.