Donald Macintyre's Sketch: The only way is Essex - and David Cameron hits the superport's heights to show why


Possibly to illustrate the point that “Britain’s role in the world” is very much a work in  progress these days, David Cameron made a speech about it on a building site.

Click here or 'view gallery' to see more pictures of the new London Gateway

Admittedly it was a huge, world-class, building site: the country’s largest dock development, as the Prime Minister lyrically described it, “larger than the Olympic Park, cranes taller than the London Eye, a port that will handle three and a half million containers a year.”

To underline the international nature of the occasion, Cameron was introduced by His Excellency Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, Chairman of DP World, the – inevitably – Dubai-based company behind the project. His Excellency was wearing dark glasses, which gave him a no doubt unfairly sinister appearance but were presumably donned in the vain hope that the sun would break through the thick grey cloud overhanging the bleak Essex estuarial landscape.

The PM outlined his global vision of the future by attempting to look, well, visionary against the background of several of those cranes – which were brought, equally inevitably, from Shanghai. In a Chinese ship.

The “rebalancing” of the economy to which Cameron referred has not yet gone so far that we can build our own. Cameron didn’t mention that the cranes were Chinese, but he did remark, stressing the competitive threats faced by the UK, that in Shanghai “a few years back they built a 15-storey hotel there – in six days.”

Sadly work here, which began in 2010, will take a little longer. So this was the ideal setting for him to make a speech on, as he put it, redundantly since he uses the term at least once a day, “what I call the global race.” There are only so many phrases you can churn out on the subject of Britain’s place in the wider world. Cameron avoided the most hackneyed — the need “to punch above its weight” – though he came perilously close with the pledge that “we strive to be more than the sum of our parts.” Then he added one of his own:  we are “the small island with the big footprint in the world.”

Cameron fully used one of his favourite rhetorical tricks yesterday. This involves saying that “some people say” – which of course they don’t – things like “Stop the World I want to get off” (signifying they are little Englander euprophobes), or “Open your borders, national sovereignty is obsolete” (meaning they are crazed Europhiles), or let’s have “an ever-bigger state and ever-bigger spending” (symbolising Labour). He does this so that he can then demolish the groups he is referring to, and their arguments. It is a an updated version of an old trope of Tony Blair, who used to set up “false choices” – usually between contrasting propositions no one actually signed up to. Hardly Cicero. But his business audience liked it well enough.