Boris Johnson's speech and the hallucinatory world of British exceptionalism

By Jill Segger
February 17, 2018

The ‘big Brexit speech’ made by Boris Johnson on Valentine’s day was – predictably – an embarrassing event. If his intent was to woo and win a divided nation, he failed badly.

It was the kind of thing we have come to expect from the Foreign Secretary. Markedly short on detail, replete with high sounding generalities, and with the inevitable embellishments of ‘how clever I am’ vocabulary, it failed to advance any understanding of the government’s position or intentions. Despite a superficially conciliatory tone towards Remainers, it contained nothing that was not in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech.

As the deadline for settling the conditions under which the UK will withdraw from 40 years of immensely complex legal, economic, political, commercial and security arrangements draws nearer, the lack of detail was deeply worrying. Time is running out and sensible people know that finding trade arrangements outside the EU was never going to be “the easiest deal in history”. It could be argued that Boris Johnson is a little less lacking in perception than Liam Fox, but his rhetorical flourishes – “historic national genius”, “self-confidence and national self-belief”, “bucking the trend” and “an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom”, were shameless, both in their owning of ignorance and their naked appeal to that self-delusion which dismisses practicality, means and method as moaning negativity and nit-picking. The rambling asides on carrots and “cheapo flights to stag parties in ancient cities” did not add any weight to his peroration.

There was no mention of the Irish border, of the European Medicines Agency or of Euratom. These are evidently not considered significant in the hallucinatory world of British exceptionalism painted here in broad and slovenly brushstrokes by a Minister not known for his intellectual rigour or moral scruple.

The man who now tries to reinforce his case by claiming “I discovered the other day that we have totally different standards for flame retardant sofas, to say nothing of plugs”, was sent by the Daily Telegraph to Brussels in 1989, from where he filed a stream of stories about the EU and the Commission which were either false or greatly exaggerated. In his own words: "I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall. I'd listen to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door, over in England. Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing explosive effect on the Tory Party and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power."

Unfortunately, these fabrications – which included the abolition of London double-decker buses, the dimensions of the euro-condom, hair nets for North Sea fishermen and the banning of prawn-cocktail crisps – set the ground for an entire generation of anti-EU outrage and arguably, for the referendum arising from David Cameron’s pusillanimous and ill-thought through capitulation to his back-bench ultras and UKIP.

Dedication to self-promotion, coupled with carelessness about truth or accuracy, remain Boris Johnson’s chief characteristics. That such a politician should be considered a serious player at this critical stage of Brexit negotiations is appalling. That he remains in office is confirmation that we have a weak Prime Minister, badly out of her depth. That she must have signed off on the speech is a cause for despair.

There are apparently a further four speeches to come, aimed at bringing together a divided country and a fractious cabinet. They will need to be a great deal better than the Valentine’s Day offering.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.