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Boris Johnson was today forced to defend himself publicly after his rambling delivery of a high-profile speech to business leaders led to fresh questions about his performance as prime minister.
The shambolic speech came as the prime minister was confronted by widespread unhappiness among his own MPs, as he saw his 80-seat majority slashed to just 26 in a crunch vote on care reforms which saw 19 Tories - including a former cabinet minister - rebel and dozens more abstain.
Addressing the CBI’s annual conference in the Port of Tyne, Mr Johnson compared himself to Moses, made “vroom, vroom” car noises, cracked risque jokes, stumbled over his words, fell silent for almost half a minute after losing his place in his text and asked his audience of senior business executives to put their hands up if they had visited Peppa Pig World.
The speech came after more than two weeks of intensive pressure on the prime minister following his botched attempt to defend former minister Owen Paterson over sleaze, as he saw his personal ratings slump amid furious rows with his own MPs about the care reforms, cuts to plans for rail investment and proposed restrictions on second jobs.
Following the speech, one senior government source told The Independent: “It was not his finest hour. But we haven’t had many fine hours recently.
“We’re the party of business. This tone was just off, frankly, and a bit embarrassing.”
And BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said the address had fuelled consternation inside the PM’s inner circle, quoting a senior Downing Street source 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.”
One Tory MP told The Independent: “I found it very worrying. He seemed to have lost the plot. He has obviously been under a great deal of stress for the last fortnight, and I think he needs a break. There’s only so much one human being can stand.”
In a speech intended to announce new support for electric vehicles, Mr Johnson repeatedly veered off his subject to deliver some of his trademark flights of fancy, telling his audience that he had “come down from Sinai” with 10 new commandments for green growth and joking about the “extraordinary wheeled rabbit hutch” he was asked to test drive as motoring correspondent for GQ magazine.
He came close to swearing when he said he doubted people would permanently want to work from home except for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – “an acronym I won’t repeat”.
And he appeared to suggest that workers should return to the office in the hope of finding a romantic partner, as he told the business leaders that “there are sound evolutionary reasons that Mother Nature does not like working from home”.
It was at this point that it became clear he had lost his place in his script as he began searching through the pile of A4 sheets on the lectern in front of him, muttering “forgive me, forgive me” as his audience waited in silence for him to resume.
Even after he worked out where he was in the speech, the PM continued to shuffle the papers in front of him and stumble over his words, and at times it appeared he was struggling to fill gaps in the text with hastily dreamt-up comments.
'You lost your notes, you lost your place, you went off on a tangent about Peppa Pig - frankly, is everything okay?'
Boris Johnson says his speech to the CBI 'went over well' after a reporter asks about him appearing to lose track of his notes pic.twitter.com/F7cznPQnYN
— ITV News Politics (@ITVNewsPolitics) November 22, 2021
At one point he told his audience of high-powered bosses: “Yesterday I went – as we all must – to Peppa Pig World.
Launching into a paean of praise for the Hampshire theme park inspired by the popular pre-school children’s cartoon, the PM asked: “I don’t know if you’ve been to Peppa Pig World? “Hands up who’s been to Peppa Pig World.”
As few of the CBI bigwigs lifted their hands, the prime minister commented: “Not enough. It’s fantastic. I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place.
“It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, heavy emphasis on mass transit systems, I notice, even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”
In a TV interview after the speech, the PM was asked: “You lost your notes, you lost your place, you went off on a tangent about Peppa Pig – frankly, is everything OK?”
He replied: “I think that people got the vast majority of the points I wanted to make, and I thought it went over well.”
But he came under fire from Labour, whose shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said: “The prime minister’s shambolic speech today not only shows how unseriously he takes British business, but also how his government lacks any plan for growth or to propel our enterprising nations forward.
“No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny anymore.”
And veteran Conservative backbencher Sir Roger Gale told The Independent: “That kind of speech to that kind of organisation does give cause for concern. While I don’t doubt that people will have been amused by his references to Peppa Pig, I suspect that the business leaders of the country were looking for something rather more substantial in terms of policy and sense of direction.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “Businesses are crying out for clarity. Instead, all they got was Boris Johnson rambling on about Peppa Pig.
“It is a perfect metaphor for Johnson’s chaotic, incompetent government as it trashes our economy, but it is not worthy of a British prime minister.”
CBI director general Tony Danker said businesses would have been “heartened to hear the prime minister talk passionately about the role of the private sector working in partnership with the government to achieve our shared ambitions for a high- wage, high-skill, high-investment economy.”
Mr Johnson returned to London to Tory demands for him to withdraw last-minute amendments to his social care plans which risk forcing poorer pensioners to sell their homes to pay for care, while wealthier individuals with assets above £186,000 are afforded much greater protection.
Although the provision completed its passage through the Commons, Mr Johnson’s winning margin of 26 indicated that large numbers of Conservative MPs either opposed the proposal or stayed away from the vote.