The foreign secretary’s address can only be interpreted as a last desperate pitch for the Tory leadershipby Oliver Kamm / October 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
If you say it fast, the name of the capital of Venezuela sounds just like the English adjective “crackers.” You can’t expect too much of the quality of gags in party conference speeches, but this pitiful one (directed at Jeremy Corbyn’s admittedly unconscionable support for an autocratic regime) was still a highlight of Boris Johnson’s speech this afternoon. It was, after all, accurate if hyperbolic. The rest of the address was fanciful, vacuous, disingenuous and demeaning—for himself, his party and (as, mirabile dictu, Johnson is foreign secretary) Britain’s diplomatic standing.
Johnson’s principal target was the purported gloominess spread by us pundits. It’s a reliable rule of thumb that if a senior cabinet minister has to tell a party conference that the election was a victory, then the accomplishment was far from substantial.
Yet that was a crucial part of the speech. The prime minister called an election in June in the expectation that she would win a decisive mandate for her vision of Brexit, and against an opposition with a weak and doctrinaire leadership. The Tories failed to achieve that minimal goal and Britain’s European partners are consequently well aware of the weakness of the government’s position.
Hence the second part of Johnson’s message of exhortation: the notion that, despite having absolutely no plan for Brexit, the Tories have a vision of a prosperous Britain unencumbered by the costs and regulations of the EU: “It is up to us now, in the traditional non-threatening and genial self-deprecating way of the British, to let that lion roar.”
What does that even mean? Who can tell? But the tone of the speech was a relentless assertion of Britain’s primacy among its European partners and an assault on those who have questions, let alone reservations, about exiting the single market and rupturing Britain’s relations with all its allies simultaneously. Johnson criticised the Financial Times by name—though not the Times, for which I write and which has also pointed to the damage that Brexit has already inflicted on the economy. “We are one of the great quintessential European nations,” said the foreign secretary: “In many ways the most influential European nation of all.”
This is vainglorious puffery. Britain is an integral part of Europe but in the continent’s postwar history it has been only a bit-player. Its attempt in the late 1950s and early 1960s to create a supranational alternative to the emerging institutions of Franco-German cooperation was a humiliating failure. Hence Britain’s belated, and initially thwarted, attempt to join the Common Market. Nor can anyone seriously dispute the effectiveness, economically and diplomatically, of the EU. The original Schuman declaration of 1950, presaging the earliest institutions of what is now the EU, envisaged that European integration would put an end to Franco-German enmity. And it worked.
There is no point, either, in Brexiteers imagining that Nato rather than the EU is the reason for Europe’s pacific postwar state. Certainly, Nato has been a huge benefit to Europe and to transatlantic cooperation, but the most important bilateral relationship in this arrangement has been between Germany and the US rather than Britain and the US.
Johnson’s speech evinced so little recognition of the weakness of Britain’s position relative to its EU partners and Nato allies that it can only be interpreted, and can have been conceived, as a last desperate pitch for the Tory leadership. In that goal, it may prove successful. In a perverse sense, success would even be appropriate. A historic party of the moderate right, which has recognised the economic and security benefits of European integration, is now dominated by nativists and ideologues. Johnson, as an intellectually idle opportunist, merits their support and will deserve the crown—to the cost of Britain’s economy and reputation.