‘Pig’s ear’: CBI speech fails to save Boris Johnson’s bacon

Tories said to be ‘sharpening their knives’ after rambling address and rebellion in the Commons

Boris Johnson CBI speech
Boris Johnson’s speech to the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI) annual conference was branded ‘shambolic’
(Image credit: Owen Humphreys/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Disquiet among Tories about “potential dysfunction” in Downing Street intensified last night after the prime minister delivered a “bizarre” Peppa Pig speech to the CBI.

Boris Johnson, “rushing on stage at the event in South Shields, was at his most crumpled”, said Quentin Letts in The Times. The PM enthused about Peppa Pig World, which he had visited at the weekend, compared himself to Moses and imitated the noise of an accelerating car.

“Bankers blinked. Chief finance officers smiled weakly. They had been expecting a plodding oration about interest rates and inflation,” wrote Letts.

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The PM muttered “blast it” and “forgive me” between long pauses as he attempted to get his notes in the right order. “He had plainly crafted the speech himself,” said Letts. “Well, half-crafted. No time for polish.”

Guido Fawkes said the final “checked against delivery” printed version was released more than five hours after the speech itself, with the car impression spelt: “arum arum araaaaaagh”.

“A classic No. 10 day all round,” concluded the site.

‘It’s just not working’

Johnson “was asked whether he was ok” by one journalist after giving the “bizarre” speech, to which he replied: “I thought it went over well”, said Lucy Fisher at The Telegraph.

But “fears of potential dysfunction at the heart of Number 10 were fuelled”, she added, after a senior Downing Street source was quoted by the BBC as saying: “There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM. It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes, otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.”

With concerns raised last week that Johnson’s authority was evaporating, one Conservative MP told The Times: “The prime minister desperately needs a big moment where everyone says, ‘boom, he’s back’. Today wasn’t that moment but he needs to find it soon.”

And amid jokes that the PM had made a “pig’s ear” of the CBI speech, another government source said people were “sharpening their knives”.

The Commons rebellion

Later in the day, Johnson “saw his House of Commons majority slashed in a key vote on social care”, reported The Independent, as 19 Tory MPs voted against a controversial scheme that alters the funding cost gap in England.

Dozens of others, including former PM Theresa May and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, “stayed away” as Johnson narrowly pushed through the plans – branded “Robin Hood in reverse” – to exclude means-tested council support payments from a new £86,000 lifetime limit on social care costs, said the paper.

Alarm bells in Downing Street

Pressure is mounting on Johnson to “raise his game” after yesterday left “alarm bells” sounding in Downing Street, said MailOnline’s James Tapsfield.

The “bewildering scenes” and subsequent “wave of vicious briefing” came “hot on the heels of the debacle over sleaze triggered by Mr Johnson’s abortive bid to save ally Owen Paterson from punishment for lobbying”, he explained.

Officially, No. 10 has declined to comment on the “gripes” following the “shambolic” speech, said Tapsfield.

Of course, “the ‘woah, I’ve lost my place, woah, do I even have a speech prepared, oh look, it’s right here!’ routine is a very, very, very old Johnson trick”, said Stephen Bush in his Morning Call newsletter for The New Statesman.

But he said the biggest difference yesterday was “how it was received in the hall”: with a “wall of silence” from business leaders.

The feeling among Conservatives is also different this time, said Bush, but Johnson has been able to reset the mood before by finding a trick to “soothe ill feeling among his colleagues”. Bush concluded: “I wouldn’t write off his ability to find one just yet.”

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