Boris makes a real pig’s ear of winning the CBI back over
After telling business to eff off, the PM needed to impress. Instead, he went into bizarre meltdown
Last modified on Mon 22 Nov 2021 16.50 EST
The only logical explanation was that Boris Johnson was out of his head on Mandrax. How else do you explain his freeform, car-crash speech to the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in Port of Tyne? It was right up there with Theresa May’s address to the Tory party conference in 2017, in which she was handed a P45, lost her voice and the set collapsed around her.
Three years ago Johnson was overheard saying “Fuck business” when some chief execs complained about the impact Brexit was having on their industries. On Monday, he managed to convey precisely the same sentiment more indirectly, merely by making no effort to engage with his audience. Or even to understand the basics of what was required. After a self-inflicted bruising few weeks of horror headlines, you might have thought he would have wanted to reset the agenda on his – and his government’s – competence. But apparently not. What he really wanted to do was carry on taking the piss.
If he was trying to demonstrate that he is a fundamentally trivial man for serious times, he couldn’t have improved on this performance. After a couple of minutes of Bertie Booster-style nonsense, he soon got waylaid by an anecdote about one of the best jobs he had ever had: motoring correspondent for GQ. He quickly namechecked several cars he had road tested before making engine noises. Vroooom vrooom raaaagh raaagh. Or something like that. He looked up, desperate for some laughs. None came. Driving under the influence clearly isn’t that funny.
Johnson then went on to refer to himself in the third person, praising the former London mayor for his efforts to make the country green, and to compare himself to Moses as he brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. Good to see his rampant, narcissistic megalomania was in full flow. To complete his green spiel, he even used the gag about fintech, medtech and nanotech all sounding like 15th-century Mexico that he used a few weeks ago in his speech to Cop26. It was Johnson doing his bit for recycling, I suppose. Though the impression he gave was that he didn’t give a toss.
The conference was being streamed from several locations across the country, and it soon became clear from the questions and comments in the message box from CBI members tuning in that they weren’t at all happy. Most of them wrote that they had been expecting something on Brexit, business rates and the punitive treatment of SMEs during the pandemic. Or at least an explanation of why VAT had been ramped up on wind turbines. Instead, they got the delusional ramblings of an idiot.
Things soon got worse. His speech only lasted 15 minutes, but he still found time to get his papers muddled up and lose his place. He had one job. “Forgive me,” he said. “Blast … forgive me … forgive me.” He’s had to say that a few times before and he still can’t make it sound sincere. The excruciating pause in proceedings lasted the best part of 20 seconds, but felt much longer. Now the delegates weren’t sure whether to feel sorry for him, worry that he had fallen unconscious, or be angry that the prime minister was turning the CBI conference into a joke.
Boris eventually got back on track with a pointless story of his trip to Peppa Pig World, which he had visited the day before. Presumably for Wilfred’s benefit rather than his own. Johnson normally only spends time in Boris World. Peppa Pig World was his kind of place, he said. Though he did think that Daddy Pig was unfairly stereotyped. I dunno. A pig that likes to mess around and is generally characterised as lazy and a bit of a joke within the family sounded about right to the CBI.
Typically, he even managed to squeeze in one lie about the show being rejected by the BBC. It wasn’t. But by now, everyone was just open-mouthed at Johnson in freefall, seemingly totally unaware that he was dying on his feet. Come the end, he received only a faint smattering of applause, and that out of embarrassment. The chaotic, shambolic shtick has long since worn thin. But Johnson doesn’t have any replacement for it.
Even then he wasn’t finished. Come the Q&A, he made a point of insulting the audience further. If people couldn’t appreciate the fact that his cuts to HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse Rail were actually vast improvements on what had been originally proposed, then they were probably a bit thick and didn’t deserve to be levelled up. And the same applied to the unequal social care costs that would be levied on the less well-off. People should just be grateful for what they were getting.
Thank you and goodnight. See you later. Though not if he saw the CBI first. It was a performance so unhinged that an ITV reporter even later asked Johnson if he was feeling OK. He couldn’t see what the fuss was about, so the drugs can’t have worn off.
A few hours later, Keir Starmer took the stage in Birmingham to give his speech to the CBI and all he really had to do was stand up to win the beauty contest. As it was, he did rather more than that: he laid out his own plans for delivering a somewhat softer Brexit that would ease many business worries, he went out of his way to say that Labour wouldn’t be telling industry to eff off, he pointed out that – contrary to the new Tory line – growth had been slow before the pandemic and that Labour was committed to being fiscally responsible. Pretty much the sort of thing the CBI had expected to hear from Johnson earlier. Then again, right now Johnson gives every impression of being Labour’s secret weapon.
John Crace and Zoe Williams will be live on stage in London at a Guardian Live event on 13 December. Join the conversation in person or online by booking tickets here.
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