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No rain on Boris Johnson’s parade just yet

Con Coughlin
29 Nov 2021 00:00:00 | Update: 29 Nov 2021 00:09:19
No rain on Boris Johnson’s parade just yet

It is an understatement to say that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has built his career on making a spectacle of himself. Who can forget the priceless image from the 2012 London Olympics when the then mayor of the capital found himself stranded on a zip wire for several minutes waving a Union Jack?

Even after becoming prime minister in 2019, Johnson has made little effort to curb his natural exuberance and his fondness for a memorable quip. It is hard to imagine any other world leader having the impudence, as Johnson did at the UN General Assembly in September, to make reference to no less an authority than Kermit the Frog on the key issue of climate change, contradicting the Muppets character by declaring: "It is easy to be green."

Using everyday references to make a more serious point has long been an essential part of Johnson's appeal, allowing him to reach other parts of the electorate that are beyond the grasp of more conventional politicians.

But when, as he did in an address to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this week, he tried to draw on the cartoon character Peppa boar to make a more serious point on economic policy, Johnson’s jokey demeanour no longer appeared quite so appealing.

Johnson has a notoriously fractious relationship with British business, once famously using an expletive to reject its criticism of his approach to the Brexit negotiations, which they believed would put British commerce at a disadvantage.

Consequently, Johnson's appearance at the CBI this week was an opportunity to repair relations with this vital lobby group, and provide reassurance that his ambitious economic agenda will reap rich rewards.

Instead, the event turned into a public relations disaster. Apart from leaving the majority of his audience bemused about his references to a children's cartoon character, and how it illustrated the power of British creativity, Johnson then managed to lose his place in his prepared speech, halting his delivery for an awkward 21 seconds as he shuffled his papers muttering "forgive me, forgive me".

As the event at the Port of Tyne in England's north-east was being televised, Johnson's abject performance quickly became a national talking point, with both Conservative and Labour MPs openly questioning whether he still retained the qualities required to fulfill the office of prime minister.

His rambling delivery certainly presented a gift to the opposition Labour party, which called it "shambolic" and proof of how unseriously Johnson takes business. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said: "No one was laughing, because the joke's not funny any more."

Arguably more damaging were the remarks made to the BBC by a senior member of the Downing Street staff – widely believed to be a member of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's economic team – that "there was a lot of concern inside the building" about Johnson's performance.

"Business was really looking for leadership today, and it was shambolic," the unnamed official said. And in a warning directly aimed at Johnson that has sent political shock waves echoing throughout Whitehall, the official continued: "Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it'll keep getting worse. If they don't insist, he [ Johnson] just won't do anything about it."

The political fall-out should not be discounted. There have already been suggestions that a number of Conservative MPs have submitted letters of "no confidence" to the party hierarchy in a bid to provoke a leadership contest, although it is unlikely the number of submissions will reach the magic number of 50 that is needed to initiate the process.

Johnson also suffered a bruising encounter with Labour leader Keir Starmer at this week's session of Prime Minister's Questions, when Starmer openly questioned Johnson's ability to continue running the country, asking: "Are you OK, Prime Minister?"