Forgive me

Can Peppa Pig save Boris from the CBI?

“Forgive me,” Boris Johnson muttered, frantically shuffling the papers in front of him. “Forgive me. Forgive me.” 

At last, the prime minister was delivering a televised apology. Not the one anyone had asked for, it’s true, but at least it was sincerely meant.

Johnson’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry had started fairly well. It was the prime minister at his best, delivering boosterism left, right and centre. Business was great! Britain was great! Great, great, great, great, great! 

It was a tough audience. They sat in silence through the laugh lines. Who knows why. Perhaps some of them were there when Vote Leave interrupted a previous prime minister’s speech to denounce the CBI as the “Voice of Brussels”. Perhaps some of them do business with Europe, or across the Irish Sea. In the questions session later, he’d deny ever having been anything other than positive about the corporate world, the implication that he hadn’t said “fuck business,” he’d said he wanted “TO fuck business”. That’s how much he likes it! 

The speech followed the usual stream of consciousness ramble that is Johnson’s trademark, less a structured argument than a bunch of anecdotes piled on top of each other like a wobbling Jenga tower.

“As you get older you get more idealistic and less cynical,” the prime minister confided to his audience. Do you? Has he? Johnson has always seemed pathological in his cynicism. There is precious little evidence of mellowing, but it probably makes a difference where you start from. 

“Brrrrm BRRRM RAAAAH!” he said, imitating the noises of the Ferraris he drove in his days as motoring correspondent of GQ, to make a point about electric cars. He said it had been one of the best jobs of his charmed life. Those seeking metaphors for Johnsonian Britain will be delighted to learn that he ran up £5,000 worth of parking tickets in the job but got the magazine to pay them. 

He lifted the pages and stared at them in wonder, as if disbelieving that anyone could write such nonsense

He turned to railways. The government was spending billions, he said, to deliver the railways everyone wanted. And suddenly there was a hint of something gone wrong. As he spoke, he was rearranging the papers in front of him. There was a note of uncertainty in his voice as he looked at what was written on them. 

Dominic Cummings has claimed, with scary plausibility, that it was only this time last year — after Britain had left the European Union — that Johnson grasped what this meant for borders. Was it possible that on Monday morning, as he looked at the speech words about his railway plans, some part of Johnson’s brain realised that this was far short of what he had promised people a few months earlier? Perhaps, as he shuffled through them, he hoped to find a section where he had kept his word. 

He ploughed on. “There are sound evolutionary reasons why Mother Nature does not like working from home,” he claimed, without explanation. What on earth did he mean? Did Homo Sapiens eclipse the Neanderthals due to their greater willingness to take the early mammoth to the office? Was the final blow for the dodo a result of its preference for Zoom over face-to-face meetings? Is it harder to procreate with a colleague if your wife is in the next room? If anyone would know, it’s Boris Johnson. 

And then things fell apart. “With safer streets, with great local schools, with fantastic broadband,” he began, and then stopped. He shuffled through the pages in front of him, one, then another, then another. Perhaps he was searching for a coherent point. A Boris Johnson speech is not a good place to look for one.

“Blast,” he muttered under his breath. “Er….”

He leafed on. “Forgive me,” he said. “Forgive me. Forgive me.”

Johnson was flailing, lifting the pages of his speech and staring at them in wonder, as if disbelieving that anyone could write such nonsense. 

He began again, revealing that he’d been to Peppa Pig World. “No Whitehall civil servant would conceivably have come up with Peppa,” he said, as though this were a profound insight. It is hard to imagine that, if the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence revealed that he’d spent the last year developing a children’s cartoon series, the news would be greeted with delight in Tory circles.

He finished, finally, to polite applause, and questions about railways and social care and lots of other areas where he explained that things were “much better” than people were saying, that he was right, and everyone else had misunderstood the detail.

Whether it’s Theresa May’s aloofness or Tony Blair’s ease with soundbites, every prime minister hits a moment where their strength becomes their weakness. Two years ago, Johnson could have lost his place in a speech and it would have been deemed another brilliant “Boris” moment. Now? Johnson is asking Tory MPs to trust him in a lot of areas where they have profound doubts. Comedy chaos is less appealing. Perhaps they will forgive him.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover