I’ve been sent a recording of a presentation made on Tuesday by the great champion of Brexit, Boris Johnson, over breakfast in Amsterdam. He was talking to “chief risk officers” of financial firms at an event called RiskMinds International, that was sponsored by, among others, the huge accounting firm PWC and the management consultancy McKinsey. Days before that big vote on Theresa May’s version of Brexit, which Johnson passionately opposes, he talks about the importance of politicians, like his hero Churchill, taking a stand against the establishment and “gambling” – making a “giant bet” – to do the right thing.
I am not going to comment much on what he says, other than to point out that he says both that what happened when we went to war with Hitler is a lesson for today and not a lesson for today (classic Johnson having and eating cake). And you will notice he takes a swipe at business and much of his own party for wanting to accommodate with Hitler – which some may see as a nod by him to his view that big business and his cabinet colleagues today should be ignored when they say they like May’s Brexit plan.
Read on, and either boo or cheer, as you think fit. Here is the relevant extract.
“The job of us as politicians is to sort it out and find a solution…
“When you look at Winston Churchill you see a man whose whole career was about risk taking – he was a compulsive gambler. This was a man who took one compulsive gamble after another – and he took all sorts of positions on things that went disastrously wrong. He was wrong about Galipoli, he was wrong about the gold standard, he was wrong about India, he was wrong about the abdication, he was spectacularly wrong for most of his political career.
“But in the 1930s he of course took one giant bet. He took a giant bet against Hitler and the Nazi party. And to use the language of finance, he shorted the Nazis in a big way, at a time when much of the British establishment was actually filling their boots with that particular stock. And even when Hitler had taken Czechoslovakia and Poland – and Belgium and Holland and France were about to fall, there was a huge coalition of people in London, high minded liberal people, who were passionately opposed to Churchill and to what they thought he stood for, and his shameless opportunism, and all the rest of it.
“The City, banks, the big banks, much of the aristocracy, the old Whig families as it were, by far the largest proportion of the Conservative Party, the Tory Party, all deeply disliked Churchill. And yet he prevailed. There was a famous meeting that some of you may know of, the Cabinet in May 1940, when he had to out-argue the Halifax faction, those who wanted to make an accommodation via Mussolini with Hitler.
“The deal was going to be that the United Kingdom would retain its empire in exchange for not interfering in what took place in Continental Europe – and we might have to do a bit of a deal over some of the Mediterranean, Malta and so on – that was essentially the deal that Hitler offered. And it would have been pretty sweet for business, as far as they could see. No disruption. Keep going. And he had a helluva struggle in the Cabinet in 1940 to persuade them that it was right for Britain to fight on. Not to do that deal. Because as you remember the United Kingdom was then completely alone.
“And I say all this not to make a comparison between events today and 1940. Because there is no comparison. That would be wholly inapposite. But the fact is if Churchill hadn’t been there in that room, if he hadn’t made the case that he did, then democracy in Europe as we know it would have been extinguished for a very long period. And it was thanks to his willingness to take that huge gamble – and it was a gamble – and it was a very expensive gamble by the way. Within a year of his decision, persuading the Cabinet it was right not to do a deal, 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed.
“But the long-term gain was, as I say, to rescue this continent and even the country we are now in [the Netherlands] from a pretty odious tyranny. So you can’t say he was wrong. In fact he was triumphantly right. A compulsive gambler was provided triumphantly right.
“And I think the only lesson I draw from that is that sometimes you do need to do the difficult thing, and you do need to take a position that everyone says is too fraught with risk. And the lesson I draw from that is the UK today has every reason to be confident about our future and what we can achieve”.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page.