Jeremy Hunt delivered the best speech of the afternoon. That is faint praise, for the Symphony Hall had by then been treated to several hours of pious, platitudinous oratory designed to place beyond reasonable doubt the contention that good is better than bad.
The slogan of the conference is “Opportunity”, but while sitting in a position where the first two letters of that word were obscured, I supposed it must read “Importunity”, for these speakers were with unnecessary persistence begging us to agree with them.
Major-General James Cowen, who runs the Halo trust, should be exempted from these strictures. In a calm and lucid tone, he gave an authoritative account of why it is a good idea to clear landmines.
Hunt told us he was going to talk about Brexit, and proceeded to assert that good manners are better than bad manners. This unremarkable view was lent charm, or savour, because it constrasts so markedly with the attitude of his predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who has been known to express admiration for the negotiating methods used by Donald Trump.
One advantage of good manners which Hunt failed to mention is that they make it easier to be rude. And the Foreign Secretary proceeded to be really quite rude about “our European friends”, to whom he said: “At the moment you seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves.”
Hunt followed this up by saying: “It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”
And he went on to declare: “Never mistake British politeness for British weakness. Because if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble. We fight.”
He proceeded to issue a testimonial: “One person of course did stand up to Russian bullies.” That person turned out to be Theresa May.
But supposing we were to need another person to stand up to them, it is clear we could depend on the Foreign Secretary.
In his peroration, Hunt said that “disunion and division won’t give us a better Brexit but the wrong Brexit”. More clearly than ever, he was presenting himself as the unity candidate should the present Prime Minister have to be replaced.
For as he put it in his previous paragraph, “if we are to unite the country we must deliver not just a true Brexit for the 52 per cent – but also a generous Brexit for the 48 per cent. They are patriots too.”
This was an impressive performance. Hunt showed his sense of history by touching on Magna Carta, and his even-handedness by reaching out to both sides in the Brexit debate.
If the party establishment wants a calm, decent, intelligent, lucid and sincere candidate who can run against Boris Johnson, its choice may fall on Hunt.
But one cannot help noting he had not filled the Symphony Hall. It is hardly surprising that at the end of a lacklustre afternoon, many seats were empty. It should nevertheless be noted that people did not come hurrying back into the hall when they heard that Hunt was on his feet. For the trouble with perfect manners is that they are not always tremendously exciting.