Miriam Lord: Young male DUPers fanboy shamelessly in the vicinity of Boris
Nothing would make them happier than to receive a Jacob Rees-Mogg doll for Christmas
The solid and sensible Brethren of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are not the sort to have their heads turned by a fading entertainer touring the sticks in an effort to boost his flagging career.
Boris Johnson may be the DUP’s favourite philanderer, but that’s about it. His comic turn in Belfast on Saturday was cheered by delegates, but you could sense that not many of them were willing to journey with him into the heart of daftness.
Alas, poor Boris, Brexit is far too serious for that.
As he blathered on about bendy buses, tinned sardines, lawnmowers, Van Morrison, Star Wars and, of course, the Titanic (how did he forget the humble potato?), the audience studied him, some with a sideways look.
And who could blame them, these people who revere the Flanders poppy, the Empire and the Queen?
One imagines the older men thinking of having to follow this gobdaw over the top in a war.
The former British foreign secretary was guest speaker at the DUP annual conference on the eve of the special EU leaders’ meeting in Brussels to agree the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the union.
The DUP launched its “Friends of Gibraltar” group at the weekend. The British Overseas Territory voted 96 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU
The prime minister, Theresa May, has a few weeks to sell the package to the British Parliament. Boris Johnson is dead set against it. So too, for now, is the DUP. Johnson came to insert a bit of steel into unionist spines before May gets to them with the hard sell.
Party leader Arlene Foster’s choice of music for her entrance summed up the identical demands of both Johnson and May: she walked on to the sound of Take That singing “Stay close to me” from the song Greatest Day.
There was a sizeable media presence in the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the afternoon speeches, but perhaps not as big as might have been expected. Brussels, it seemed, was the place to be and Boris, it seems, is not the draw he used to be.
Given the international attention, the Rev William McCrea’s fervent rendition of There’ll Always Be An Ulster was shelved for the second year in a row, and there were no little union flags on the chairs for delegates to wave.
However, there were lapel pins for “British Gibraltar”. The DUP launched its “Friends of Gibraltar” group at the weekend. The British Overseas Territory voted 96 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU. But nobody mentioned that.
The day began with “devotions” conducted by gospel singer Willie, who recently became Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown.
Deputy leader Jeffrey Donaldson addressed the ballroom before lunch and he went down so well he got a resounding “three cheers for Jeffrey – hip hip hoorray”.
This was followed by urgent cries down the back of “Buckets! Buckets!” Rather unfair on Donaldson, who wasn’t that bad. Then we discovered they were taking up a collection for a children’s charity.
Boris was the celebrity turn. He arrived at lunchtime for his 2.30pm speaking slot, causing great excitement among the young male DUPers, shamelessly fanboying in his vicinity, approaching officials with their programmes to see if Boris might possibly sign them.
The shiny faced DUP lads were everywhere, easy to spot in their carefully curated ensemble of dark suit (usually pin-striped) with bum freezer jacket, restrained tie and neat hair glistening with gel. Nothing would make them happier than to find a Jacob Rees-Mogg doll in their Christmas stocking.
They cheered Johnson to the rafters when he pootled onstage to address the yokels.
“Good afternoon my fellow Unionists,” he cried, to delighted hoorays.
Then he launched into a speech about the UK’s rightful place as one of the main trading nations of the world. The journalist, who launched a successful eurosceptic career by banging on (inaccurately) about bendy bananas, chose to devote much of his speech to bendy buses.
When he was Mayor of London “we got those German-made bendy buses off the street”.
“Waay!” went the DUPers.
Instead, he brought back the wonderful red London routemaster bus, which is manufactured in Northern Ireland with the best of British parts. Wright Bus is a fine example of how Britain can trade with the world. With the right Brexit deal “we can turbo-charge the areas in which this country already leads Europe, if not the world”, he declared.
But the UK, in the EU, is already trading with these far-flung markets. “I’m delighted to say the Wright Bus already sells its products to China and India and Singapore,” bragged Boris, before chuckling about selling off some of the German bendy buses to someone else. “We sold the bendy buses to Malta . . .”
There was loud laughter from the crowd at the mention of Malta.
“Where they all, where they all . . . I’m afraid they jackknifed and caught fire,” bumbled Boris, to general hilarity.
He invited his audience to think of all the UK could do if they could have free trade deals which “not only cut the cost of food and textiles and shoes for people in this country but which would open up markets for Northern Ireland products and UK products around the world at a time when free trade needs a powerful global champion . . .”
He paused. “. . . And when people around the world – I can tell you – are YEARNING for us in the United Kingdom to play that role.”
Yearning, so they are.
Delegates, worried about agriculture and business, were then bamboozled about “pedaloes” and “paddleboards” by way of saying the current Brexit deal would be a Titanic mistake. This had Boris rambling about “recreational watercraft”. If people in Northern Ireland started making perfectly good pedaloes, they would be “demolished” by Brussels to placate the likes of Germany and Italy, “as we saw with Dyson and his hairdryers”.
The stolid Ulster farmers and company owners sat back, arms crossed, as the steam of gibberish continued. They are not of “the hip modern thriving and funkapolitan culture of London”.
The man [Boris] who prepared two columns before the Brexit vote – one in favour of staying and the other in favour of leaving – their champion
On then to a baffling interlude on the Star Wars light sabre, which Johnson proudly informed them was first made in his constituency of Uxbridge. And now some of the next movie in the franchise will be filmed in Northern Ireland.
“Take the scenic splendour and cinematic expertise of Northern Ireland, add the inventiveness of Uxbridge, and you have the creative genius of the United Kingdom.”
In his script (yes, there was one), he described the light sabre as “the glowing, throbbing rod with its enigmatic hum.”
But in front of the god-fearing brethren of the DUP, he chickened out, muttering about “the throbbing, enigmatic, humming thing.”
A number of older delegates were asleep.
The celebrity speaker got another big cheer at the end of his badly judged knockabout, but most of the stuff in the middle went down like a ton of bricks.
Then Arlene Foster had to follow. At least she made sense. She also spent an inordinate amount of her speech apologising for the Cash for Ash scandal.
She tried to soothe the worries of members from the business community who want to accept the deal on the table. But she remained adamant that parts of the agreement are “not in Northern Ireland’s long-term economic or strategic interests”.
She got a less-than-enthusiastic response.
At the end, delegates stood and sang their National Anthem. They needed no musical accompaniment, singing strong and clear. The men, standing ramrod straight and chin up, arms by their sides, palms facing back. The women, also standing stiffly to attention, singing fiercely. They meant every fervent word.
And then Boris, bumbling out the words in the front row. The man who prepared two columns before the Brexit vote – one in favour of staying and the other in favour of leaving – their champion. God love them.
He left shortly afterwards for funkapolitan London.