Dominic Raab entered to a brief and polite standing ovation. But could he, in his first conference speech as Foreign Secretary, change the torpid Sunday afternoon atmosphere in the hall?
Successful conference oratory does not work by politeness. It relies on being wonderfully rude, monumentally impertinent, about your opponents. Michael Heseltine is the greatest modern exponent of the style.
Raab looked around for someone to be rude about. He remarked that “we Brits” are warmly welcomed almost everywhere.
“OK, maybe not in Luxembourg.” That went down quite well. He followed it up: “I think the British people have had more than enough of EU leaders disrespecting British Prime Ministers.”
Applause. Brexit is the way to stir this audience. The Foreign Secretary veered, however, into high-mindedness, and said that in future, “our foreign policy should be guided by a clear moral compass”.
This may be true, but it did not make any hearts beat faster. He turned for a moment to attack a more powerful opponent: “We won’t look the other way, when the people of Hong Kong are beaten indiscriminately on commuter trains for exercising the right to peaceful protest.”
That too was well received. It was not, however, followed by any further jibes at the regime in Beijing.
Raab decided he would rather maintain the ancient tradition of makes jibes at the expense of the Labour Party: “There are some things even bigger than Brexit, and keeping that lot out of Downing Street is one of them.”
Applause. “And as for the Liberal Democrats,” he went on. “Neither liberal nor democratic,” the lady sitting behind me remarked. Raab said, “no one ever accused the Liberal Democrats of consistency, but when it comes to offences under the Trade Description Act, they’re guilty as charged.”
Not in the Heseltine class, but he is treading in an as yet too gingerly manner in the right direction.
Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, spoke with the exaggerated vigour which is required in this hall, where the sound seeps away through black curtains.
But he said nothing very memorable, and the star of the show was Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, greeted with whoops and cheers, for here at last was someone the poor bloody infantry knew would raise their spirits.
Rees-Mogg observed that “there seems to be some enthusiasm”, and suggested more of his constituents from North East Somerset must have turned up than expected.
He gave us Disraeli, Lord Randolph Churchill, Gulliver’s Travels, Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, and a picture of Jeremy Corbyn all the more damning because it was charitable: “I do not believe him to be a bad man, but he is a weak man.”
And behind Corbyn stands Sir Keir Starmer, “poised, Brutus-like, three feet back, stiletto in hand, awaiting the moment to strike”.
Here at last was the theatre of politics, based on an original script by William Shakespeare, with additional material by John Dryden, for Rees-Mogg, well into his stride by now, flung one of that poet’s most celebrated couplets at Starmer:
In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state.
The hall loved this. Like Disraeli, and the present Prime Minister, Rees-Mogg is an exponent of Tory Democracy, that alliance between the ruling class and the working class which makes Gladstonian prigs, and their descendants, choke with moral indignation.