As Boris Johnson understands nothing about business, he decided to make his speech to the CBI a report about what he’d been up to at the weekend
“It can only really be described as meandering at high speed. It was as if a world he didn’t understand was spread out before him, and he zoomed in random patterns across its surface like a potassium on a pond.”
This, it turns out, is what I had to say about Jeremy Corbyn – remember him? – when, a few months into the job of Labour leader, he turned up to give a speech to a room full of business people and it arguably didn’t go well.
So before we get on to Boris Johnson’s latest self-deflating fart balloon of a speech, I would, briefly, like to issue the member for Islington North a formal apology. His powers of oratory were maligned in their time, and a fair chunk of that maligning may or may not have been done by me. Through the prism of today, however, he stands aloft the dismal times that have followed him like a modern day Cicero. His reputation has been rehabilitated by Boris Johnson, who was, we must report yet again, in his not even phone-it-in but waft-it-in mode. And the results were as predictable as they were execrable.
When Corbyn gave a speech about business that he didn’t understand, he at least tried, a bit, to keep his meaningless verbiage on topic. There was stuff, apparently, about “pillars of financial ecology”. As Johnson understands absolutely nothing whatsoever about the world of business, he decided to make his speech to the Confederation of British Industry a kindergarten style report about what he’d been up to at the weekend.
And what had he been up to at the weekend, the actual prime minister? He’d been to Peppa Pig World. The delegates of the Confederation of British Industry, who had travelled to Newcastle upon Tyne for 10am on a Monday morning to listen to the prime minister outline his plan for UK business, in the middle of the most challenging business environment for decades, most of which is the prime minister’s fault, were sat down to be told all about Peppa Pig World. (Oh, and he also did an impression of a car.)
Peppa Pig World was good. It had safe streets. It had mass transit systems. “Whitehall, the civil service, it would never have come up with Peppa!” the actual prime minister told them. He declined to explain why exactly this was a failure on Whitehall’s part. As the actual prime minister, one of Boris Johnson’s other official job titles is “minister for the civil service”, so it is yet another thing to be troubled about that he think it’s OK to publicly malign the civil service for failing to both invent a cartoon pig, and then open a theme park to capitalise upon its success.
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Johnson, of course, has spent too long in the company of Dominic Cummings (though not as long as Cummings hoped), but to the best of my knowledge, and I speak as someone who has not actually read all of the blogs from beginning to end, Cummings did not think a successful civil service was one that was heavily invested in the children’s books and crossover leisure space.
There was also the bit where he lost his place and spent 40 toe-curling seconds muttering the words “forgive me” and trying to rejoin the light fantastic at the point at which he had somehow just tripped off it. That was already weird enough, before you even begin to contemplate the deeper ramification – that someone had actually written this stuff down and printed it out.
It is routinely speculated that these horrific occasions are part of some kind of wider strategy. That, when he goes on about Peppa Pig, or when he spends so long trying to remember the words police officers say when they arrest someone that an actual police officer standing in the sun behind him faints through heat exhaustion, that it’s a distraction strategy.
Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. Maybe Johnson really does deploy his own very obvious uselessness and idleness as a smokescreen for his own very obvious uselessness and idleness. I must confess I never quite understand how it would work. But then, why does he keep doing it? Well, though the Johnson schtick wears very thin indeed for all those who have to be around it for any moderately extended period of time, and the country does appear to be working this out, he still thinks it works for him. It’s got him this far, after all, and not much else has.
There are, as yet, no key performance indicators for when the country has grown tired of Johnson, as everybody does in the end. But it’s possible there are warning signs there. At the end of this speech, in an interview with ITV, the interviewer, having watched the speech, and gauged the audience reaction, saw fit to pose the following question: “Is everything OK, prime minister?”
That, surely, is the time to start worrying.