This has been a crucial week for Theresa May – and a successful one. Last weekend, the mutterings were growing. She was being accused of indecisiveness and of hiding behind her two Cerberus advisors, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. There was a lot of unhappiness in her Cabinet. Comparisons were being drawn with Gordon Brown. She had one endless advantage, poor old Jeremy Corbyn, a man who takes haplessness to new depths every time he opens his mouth: the gift who keeps on giving. But that was just as well, for she had no reserves of affection to fall back on as the doubts about her competence grew. She had a speech to make. It was a big occasion; it would have to be a good speech. In advance, the knives were sharpening.
They have now been sheathed. That speech exceeded all expectations. It was lucid and coherent. The tone of voice was authoritative: Prime Ministerial. In advance, the Foreign office briefers had obviously done their work. From Europe, the initial responses were respectful. Suddenly, she was back in control – of everything, except her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.
Shakespeare believed in clowns: the use of humour to mitigate tragedy. The Bayeux tapestry also has humorous sub-plots around the border below the principal action, usually on the theme of clod-hopping priapism: contexts in which Boris would be at home: contexts which are wholly irrelevant to his current responsibilities. We are not living in humorous times. Mrs May’s task is not to mitigate tragedy, but to avoid it.
Over the approaching long tense months of difficult negotiation, there is no scope for clowning. Some of the foreigners would be glad of an excuse to turn on Britain: to claim that our government was being unreasonable. Boris’s asinine antics could yet help to derail the PM’s Brexit strategy.
For the rest of us, it is fun to tease Franco-Germans about the war. Francois Hollande helping to run a concentration camp: if only the guards had been like him, then most of their prisoners would have escaped. But this is not the time for war joking. That is too likely to obstruct the process of peace-making.
In her and the country’s interests, Mrs May should second Boris to the British Council, where he could help to introduce foreigners to the delights of the English sense of humour: Boris Wooster. That would be funny. But no-one will be laughing if he buggers up Brexit.