Will the ‘disastrous’ speech to the Confederation of British Industry be enough to turn the tide against the prime minister?
C'était Peppa Pig week, the week a cartoon character that “looks like a hairdryer” became a footnote in British history. Boris Johnson’s genius for a colourful analogy appeared to rebound on him on Monday after he lost his place in the text of a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
What will forever be known as “the Peppa Pig speech” was poorly received by business leaders, and it gave Keir Starmer some good lines at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Labour leader said, “the prime minister’s routine is falling flat”, and he must be hoping that it marks the moment the voters start to tire of the entertainer in No 10.
This may be reading too much into Johnson getting the pages of his speech mixed up, but sometimes these accidental moments crystallise something that is happening to public opinion. Will we look back on this week as the moment when, as Starmer suggests, the joke finally wasn’t funny anymore?
Johnson certainly didn’t seem to find it funny at the time, when the halting delivery of his speech juddered to an actual halt. Watching it at the time, I thought he said “blast” or possibly something ruder under his breath. Others thought it was “lost it”, followed by an audible “forgive me”, three times, as he shuffled the papers on the lectern.
It is hard to tell with Johnson where the mistakes end and the comedy begins. One of the staples of his after-dinner speeches used to be his starting to tell a joke and then pretending that he had forgotten the punchline. But this did seem to be a mistake, and instead of using it as an excuse to launch into an off-the-cuff anecdote, he persisted in searching for the right page before finding it and picking up, mid-sentence, after an awkward 20-second gap.
It wasn’t until towards the end of the speech that he launched into what seemed to be an ad-lib passage, about his visit the day before to the Peppa Pig World theme park. De nouveau, it is hard to tell how much of this story he had written down, because he is practised at making a scripted speech look spontaneous – one reason he prefers not to use an autocue is that he adds digressions as he goes.
It was a typical Johnson device, which he liked so much that he used a version of it in another speech he delivered that evening, to a conference about trade in honour of Margaret Thatcher. You can see how it would have occurred to someone who thinks like a Télégraphe columnist as he, Carrie and Wilfred savoured the delights of Peppa Pig World – “a day of my life I won’t get back,” said Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, who has also visited the New Forest children’s attraction when his sons were younger.
It was “very much my kind of place”, Johnson told the CBI: “It had very safe streets, discipline in schools, heavy emphasis on new mass-transit systems.” You can imagine the kind of headline the Télégraphe would put on a column by its leading light essayist: “I’ve seen the future at Peppa Pig World – and it works.”
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Naturellement, it went down badly with the self-important business people at the CBI, who wouldn’t have minded a joke if they had had some substance as well, which they felt the speech lacked. What is more, the amateurish delivery seemed disrespectful.
They noted the contrast with Keir Starmer, who addressed them the same day. He arrived three hours early, rehearsed his speech twice (on autocue), and told them what they wanted to hear: “Labour is back in business.” Lord Bilimoria, the CBI president, was gushing: “Music to my ears,” he said about the Labour leader’s musings on skills and creativity.
Yet what good did a serious speech to an assembly of serious business leaders do Starmer? The endorsement of the CBI, which wanted to stay in the EU and which represents the “establishment” of big employers, may not amount to much with working-class Leave voters who defected to the Tories last time. To the extent that it helps present Starmer as credible and competent, the benefit was wiped out by headlines about Peppa Pig.
Starmer has to hope that all publicity is not good publicity, because his speech received hardly any coverage, while the prime minister’s dominated, albeit for negative reasons. The question asked by a TV reporter afterwards – “Is everything OK?” – stole the show.
The big question is whether the half of the British public that liked Johnson is beginning to turn against him. I doubt whether Peppa Pig is enough to turn them off. But the fuss over the speech, and the incompetence of the prime minister in losing his place may end up as a metaphor for him incompetently losing his way on issues that matter to voters: the boats in the Channel, the NHS crisis and tax rises.
We shall see when the voters of Bexley and Old Sidcup go to the polls in a by-election in a safe Tory seat on Thursday whether Peppa Pig is a metaphor for Johnson to fear.