“I’m very sorry I can’t be with you today,” said David Cameron, via a pre-recorded video link, like some actor holed up in LA who didn’t think the award on offer was worth the 10-hour flight.
“I hope all of you business people have an absolutely super day and I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I couldn’t have achieved the deal I’ve reached with the EU without you. So please vote to remain inside Europe if you don’t want the world to end. Thank you.” When Dave catches up with the bloke who suggested having an EU referendum on 23 June he’s going to give him hell.
The fairy cakes might have come branded with American Express icing, but the agenda for the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference was unashamedly all European. In or out. Even the health and safety warning played over the PA system before proceedings started in earnest had an opinion. “In the event of a Brexit, please stay seated. Oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling and lifejackets are located under your chairs.”
Within seconds of Sajid Javid starting his opening address, almost everyone in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster was hoping for some kind of emergency. Brexit, earthquake, nuclear explosion. Anything. The business secretary isn’t the most compelling of speakers even when he’s got something to say; when he’s got nothing much to say he’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
“I thought with my head,” he announced. To some this might seem obvious, though not to Javid for whom any kind of thinking about Europe is extremely hard work and needs to be done with any part of his anatomy available. “I hate Brussels, me,” he said. “The EU is a truly terrible place but I have decided on balance that, even though the reforms David Cameron has managed to negotiate are entirely meaningless, it is better for business if we remain in the EU because business always knows best and what business wants is to stay in an EU that has been reformed by the prime minister’s brilliant negotiations.” Those who were still awake offered only muted applause.
In Javid’s defence, he was only the warm-up act of the morning’s session. Top billing went to Jeremy Corbyn, who was giving his first ever speech to business people. As soon as the Labour leader walked on to the stage, he made it clear that all he really wanted to do was walk straight back off it. This might have been his big chance to prove he wasn’t the Trot the rightwing media had made him out to be, but he wasn’t going to sell out to the Man. The tie was more undone than usual – not out of untidiness, but as a deliberate act of aggression against the capitalist system.
Corbyn’s eyes narrowed as he began reading out a long tract about the nature of the means of production and its influence in a post-capitalist world in a dull monotone. In the Commons he can be a lively speaker, here he seemed hellbent on alienating as many people as possible. There were moments when he was talking about the banks and red tape that he could have got the audience on side. But Corbyn didn’t want that, so he maintained a pause-free, breathless pace so that no one would have a chance to applaud. Even if they had felt like it. Europe? It was OK, he supposed, if you like that kind of thing which he didn’t much. “The Labour party and business are natural allies,” he concluded. It hadn’t sounded like it.
The MC for the day also seemed to be struggling to work out why Corbyn had bothered to turn up. “Can you give me a quick elevator pitch to explain what Labour has to offer small business?” he asked rather desperately at the end. Corbyn riffed into another impenetrable, monotone monologue. As the elevator hit the 875th floor and crashed through the roof, he was still speaking. Not many were listening.
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