Right then. Get on with the job. That’s the May way. Get the Brexit thing over and done with on day one and then onward to the domestic stuff that no one’s voted for. In that sense, the four day Tory conference of 2016 will be a microcosm of the four year May administration. Rush through Brexit in as quick and kamikaze a fashion as possible, then save the electoral day with some guaranteed Ukip-friendly vote winners. Test the water with grammar schools, ramp it up with a bit of pledging to spend the international aid budget on repatriating prisoners (a genuine policy announcement on Sunday from Priti Patel). The election's not for four years. Don't imagine chemical castration for paediatricians is off the table.
Out they all came, on the stage in Birmingham, one by glorious one. May, Davis, Johnson, Fox. Not Liam Fox of course, that would be too risky, but as fortune would have it the MEP for Gibraltar is called Ashley Fox so they wheeled him out instead.
(Liam Fox is on Monday, by the way. What a pity the Tories don’t bother with any lefty Labour and Lib Dem nonsense like an on-stage signer for the deaf. They could have saved time by deploying a Number 10 Press officer to stand stage left live-denying his every word in semaphore.)
What they did have stage-left was half a Union Jack lovingly reimagined in teal. This is what you get when you put a huskie-hugging PR man in charge of the party for a decade. (No sign of him by the way). But it was a fitting enough metaphor. A gentle nod to the half-Britain they have planned for us all. A vision of the nation they are by no means done debasing.
A gentle skim of the fringe calendar reveals somewhere in the region of 90 events dedicated to discussing what Brexit means. Why they are bothering we do not know. Ms May hadn’t been on stage for more than two minutes before she had again reaffirmed it with her trademark blinding clarity. “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it,” she said. They clapped like mad. Some of them even stood. If Johnson is a comedian politician, May is a rock star. She knows they’re not here for the new material. Give them the greatest hits.
The next item on the set list was almost as classic as the last. “We will not be able to give a running commentary, or a blow by blow account of what will happen in the negotiations,” she boomed. Again, they clapped. She knows as well as anyone, the fatal consequences of saying what you actually want before you know what you’ve got, otherwise you won't be able to pretend the two are the same.
“Every stray word, hyped up media report is going to make it harder for us to strike the right deal for Britain,” she continued, a gentle nod towards the key strategic goal of Brexit - to make sure blame for its failure is properly apportioned in advance.
The afternoon’s chief motif was to repackage the nation’s current successes as reasons for the urgent need of fundamental transformation, and May did her bit on this front. “The fifth biggest economy in the world” is your entry-level duplicity here, and it fell like dung from the mouths of almost every speaker. On a personal note, over the summer, a friend’s four year-old won a prize for the Third Biggest Sandcastle on Aldeburgh beach. So proud was he of his achievements, I have been told, that he refused to kick it down. If only such deep thinking was not beyond the capacities of our political leaders.
The Prime Minister praised “the Japanese purchase of ARM, the biggest ever investment in Britain,” but wisely chose not to mention the fact that, in the middle of the night on June 23rd, the price of the world’s most important microchip designing company dropped by ten per cent, or £3bn, in twenty minutes, transforming the world's fifth largest economy into a TK Maxx for foreign asset strippers. And given that the rest of her speech was a barely coded plan to pull Britain out of the single market, she also didn’t mention the other British based Japanese companies, Nissan for example, who are threatening to sue for compensation if she does so - which she will.
After Brexit, Britain, she said, would have the right to ‘label its own food', a clear admission that we are to depart from ‘regulatory convergence’ and thus leave the single market. Not the Norway model, then, Not the Swiss model. But the North Korean one. All sovereignty restored.
David Davis was next, who strode on to the stage as if carried aloft on a mushroom cloud of his own ego. A fitting metaphor in fact, as he spoke for twenty minutes never for a second shifting from the impression of a man semi-drunk on the self-satisfaction of his own farts.
Why he was reading out an old his own O Level history homework he did not say, but apparently the rest of Europe loves the EU because it’s saved them from “domination and dictatorship” but Britain, “the world’s oldest liberal democracy, never saw the EU that way.”
It’s total rubbish, of course, but what’s worse is that the microscopic grain of truth within it confirms the opposite. Four hundred unrivalled years of political stability, good governance and the rule of law all went up with the bomb Davis placed under them on June 23rd. Down goes another sandcastle.
Naturally, they clapped like crazy for Boris Johnson. That he spent last week posing for awkward photographs with the same Turkish President he recently branded a goat-shagger in limerick form for no higher purpose than to ensure nepotistic victory in a poetry competition put on by a magazine he used to edit, might, you would have thought, have taught him a harsh lesson in the necessities of diplomacy.
As he opened with a series of jokes at the expense of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, one had to conclude he had not.
They whooped and cheered as Foreign Secretary Johnson described working in the Foreign Office, 'a buidling with more guilt bling than the Kardashians.' They are, he said, 'The rooms from which an Empire seven times the size of the Roman Empire was controlled.”
“From these rooms, 178 nations of the world we either conquered or invaded,” he said, to the loudest cheer of the day.
“But those days are over,” he said. Silence. They were not expecting that.
What we have now, apparently, is ‘soft power.’
“Up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle kindly gunboats of British soft power captained by Jeremy Clarkson - a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country,” he purred. “Or JK Rowling, who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity.”
Perhaps its ungenerous to point out - as another sandcastle went crashing down - that it is difficult for claims on ‘soft power’ to be made by a man who has done more than any other to trash the reputation of his nation in every corner of the world. It might also be unfair. After all, thanks to him, Britain has plenty of new friends now, and if Donald Trump could just make it to the White House, and Marine Le Pen to the Elysees Palace too, then things will already be looking up.
Not that any of this matters. They were on their feet as he made his way off stage, sloping past the teal demi-flag. Party conferences always have a touch of the North Korea about them. But rarely more than this one.
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