“A Foreign Secretary is always caught by a cruel dilemma – hovering between the cliché and the indiscretion. He is either dull or dangerous.” So said Harold Macmillan, holder of that office on his way to the prime ministership.
This percipient remark needs updating, not only to take account of the fact that we now have a female Foreign Secretary, but because Liz Truss today managed, while taking questions from Anand Menon and the overflowing audience in the ConHome tent, to be neither dull nor dangerous.
Menon remarked that he and Truss were sitting “on the most ridiculous bar stools you can imagine”.
“A bar without the drinks!” the Foreign Secretary complained, a deficiency she appeared to blame on ConservativeHome.
Soon she was twitting Menon for being obsessed “by this machinery of government stuff”.
“How important a partner to the UK is France?” Menon asked.
“It is an important partner,” Truss said, but added that there are “lots of other important countries”, such as Spain, Italy, Germany, the Visegrad Four and the Baltic Three.
Were there, one wondered, any unimportant countries? Perhaps not, but meanwhile Germany was getting an upgrade: “Germany is a hugely important partner to the UK.”
“How important is personal diplomacy?” Menon wondered.
“Very important,” Truss assured him. “I spend all day on the phone, is what you need to know.”
But through these various degrees of importance, her manner was mocking rather than portentous, as when she twitted Menon for quoting so liberally from her platform speech on Monday.
When he ventured to cite another of her phrases, “Banging the drum for Britain abroad to deliver for people here at home,” she retorted, “You can use that, Anand.”
“I’ll footnote it,” he replied.
“How do you value the input of Liverpool or Manchester United overseas?” Truss asked, not expecting an answer.
“Very low,” Menon said.
He referred to Britannia Unchained, the famous volume brought out in 2012 by five Conservative MPs, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Chris Skidmore, Dominic Raab and Truss herself.
Four of the authors are now in the Cabinet, and are sometimes chided for having described the British as “the worst idlers in the world”.
Truss declared, pre-emptively, that if Menon asked her about that, she would employ “the Dominic Raab defence”, according to which “Dominic wrote anything [in the book] that’s remotely controversial”.
“Who’s the best Foreign Secretary the country’s ever had?” Menon asked, “just in case you’ve changed your mind.”
“It’s still Boris Johnson,” Truss replied, which some of us thought was hard on Castlereagh, Canning, Palmerston and Bevin.
Menon touched on the ConHome poll of cabinet ministers, which Truss has regularly topped.
“I don’t know how Paul Goodman runs the ConHome poll,” Truss said. “I haven’t bribed him yet.”
“You don’t need to,” Goodman pointed out.
We realised, to our surprise, that Truss was enjoying herself. A key tenet of Johnsonism is to tell jokes on occasions that would once have been thought too serious for such treatment.
“Where do you want to be in five years’ time?” a member of the audience asked.
“I still want to be in the Foreign Office,” she replied.
“Will you be the best Foreign Secretary ever by then?” came the question.
“I’m not going to answer that,” she replied.
But the dead bat was not often deployed. Let us hope that Truss does not go native as she works her way into her job, and retreat behind a screen of cliché.