When Geoffrey Cox stood on stage at Conservative conference and gave a speech to introduce Theresa May, the newly appointed Attorney General managed to steal the show. Cox managed to bring the house down with his Mufasa-inspired routine – quoting poetry as he called on members to get behind the Prime Minister.
At Tuesday night’s Onward event – to celebrate the Conservative think tank’s first year – Cox cut a more sombre figure. The Cabinet minister used his speech to address the problems the party finds itself in – deploying some gallows humour along the way:
‘This is the first time I’ve ever addressed a think tank and I’m a bit nonplussed by the experience of seeing so many distinguished, intelligent, intellectually profound… journalists in the audience.
It’s an enormous honour to be invited to speak to this august and esteemed already first birthday party for Onward, I must confess I’m delighted somebody is thinking and relieved that somebody is thinking for the future and the renewal of the Conservative party, because I don’t know about you, but having recently come into the frontline of politics, I have to say that increasingly it feels like a spectacle from the Grand Guignol, in which every scene out competes the last for horror and gruesome sensation.
Napoleon Bonaparte said that in politics, absurdity is not a handicap, which should provide some comfort to some of my colleagues contemplating leadership bids… Present company excepted of course. But I’m particularly glad that you are concentrating on the young. In my association I am young, so I am assuming that that also extends to me. In fact I was listening to a socialist commentator recently, who probably shall remain nameless… I was listening to this socialist commentator, close I understand to Corbyn, who was comparing the alleged enthusiasm of the younger generations for Corbyn and McDonnell’s old-time socialism, to their rediscovery of their enthusiasm for vinyl records.
But you know there was a reason why the world moved on from 45s, LPs and vinyl so I’m delighted that here at Onward, that work is being done. And I was thinking about what I’d say this evening about the current condition of the Conservative party, which Onward is devoted to improving, and it reminded me of an old Vaudeville story of a man who was about to be hanged: he was ushered forward to the steps of the scaffold, and he was pushed up the steps, and as he reached the top of the scaffold, the entire rickety edifice wobbled and shook – well it had been erected in haste. And he was marched forward to the noose, and the noose was put about his neck, and the minister stepped forward and asked him “do you have any final words?”, and after a moment’s pause he said “yes, this bloody thing isn’t safe.” I’ll leave to you to deduce the relevance of that.
But, more seriously, since I suppose we ought to be serious, and to be honest if I can raise any humour tonight it’s going to be gallows humour, I do think that what Onward is doing here is incredibly valuable and important. And I think if I were going to give any advice, and my advice is quite expensive, if I were to give any advice at all, it would be I think congratulations, it would be encouragement, and it would be one exhortation: whatever any party does, there is no future for it, unless we recognise the scale of the political event that took place on 23rd June 2016, and whatever response we fashion to that event, we must ensure that it is commensurate with the gravity and the sheer range and depth of implication that event has.
You don’t have to agree with Ivan Rogers in every detail of his argument, to believe that he is right in describing it as a revolutionary event, and you will all remember what JFK said about those who make peaceful revolution impossible. So that whatever response the Conservative party has to this extraordinary, seismic, and earth-shaking event, it must do justice to the expectations and to the significance, the expectations of those who voted for it, the majority, and the significance of it. And what does that mean? Well it means we need to confront this phenomenon honestly and realistically, we cannot engage and indulge in simplifications. Not only about the prospect, whatever happens, to the Article 50 process on which we are now embarked, of our departure, but also the implications it has for our society and our politics.
And so I put a plea in I think really for realistic thinking, as Groucho Marx once said: “I may not be crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal.” And, so I am delighted that Onward is doing that, it is fashioning a response that is commensurate to the gravity of what happened, because if we don’t meet those expectations, and we don’t conceive of our party’s future in a satisfactorily ambitious way, if we don’t re-examine and reimagine the foundations of our economy, and our constitution, and our union of nations, we will not be answering the call that was made by those 17.4 million, just three years ago.
And it really will take that level and scale of ambition, for us as a Conservative party, to conceive of the mission that we now have, as the renewal not only of our party, but the renewal also of our country, the renewal of the civic bonds that bind us, the renewal of trust in our political institutions. And in fashioning that response… we must also draw on those abundant energies and validations that come from our history to guide us.
If we are Conservatives, we know that part of our mission is to ensure a grand continuity from the past, modernising our society, but drawing on those vibrant and vital traditions that come from our history.
I am a common lawyer, nothing is more emblematic of the way that the present refashions the past to create the future, than the manner in which our common law has developed. It was the common law that gave us many of the political liberties that we now enjoy because of the courage of those who sought to hew from the consciences of judges those liberties and those freedoms. And look around us here tonight, at these extraordinarily beautiful works of art, these works of art were often the product of a ferment of ideas at times when nations were being either born or renewed. And as a party, we must conceive our role as renewal, not only of our party, but also of our nation, and our great union of nations, and I am delighted tonight that Onward is not leaving that call unanswered.’