Boris Johnson has been criticised by senior business leaders and Conservative MPs for a “rambling” speech to top industry figures that saw him extensively praise Peppa Pig World, compare himself to Moses and imitate the noise of an accelerating car.
The prime minister’s sprawling address to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was accused of lacking seriousness and professionalism. Johnson lost his place during the speech and spent 20 seconds repeating “forgive me” as he shuffled the printed pages on his podium.
Some hoped the speech would be a chance for Johnson to announce proper policy in the pursuit of his “levelling up” agenda. However, the speech at the Port of Tyne near South Shields only contained an announcement about changing building regulations to ensure all new homes and buildings in England have electric vehicle charging points installed from next year.
One of Johnson’s lengthier tangents was about his recent trip to Hampshire’s Peppa Pig World – an amusement park dedicated to a children’s cartoon character, which he opined on in an apparent dig at civil servants and the BBC.
He said that “the true driver of growth is not the government”, but the private sector, whose energy and originality the prime minister praised. To illustrate this, he explained: “Yesterday I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World. Hands up if you’ve been to Peppa Pig World!
“I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, heavy emphasis on new mass transit systems. Even if they’re a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”
Johnson explained that the “real lesson” he learned on the visit was that the popularity of the main character – who he said resembled a “Picasso-like hairdryer” – was evidence of “the power of UK creativity”. Johnson said the TV show “was rejected by the BBC and has now been exported to 180 countries” and now worth £6bn. “I think that is pure genius, don’t you? No government in the world, no Whitehall civil servant, would conceivably have come up with Peppa.”
Johnson also imitated the sound of an accelerating car with grunts that the official Downing Street release transcribed as “arum arum aaaaaaaaag”. He also compared himself to Moses over his plan to help business invest in tackling climate change. The prime minister said: “I said to my officials the new 10 commandments were that ‘Thou shalt develop industries like offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon capture.’”
However, senior business figures and some Tory MPs were deeply unimpressed. One senior backbencher said it was a “mess”, while another told the Guardian: “I thought today’s performance was the most embarrassing by a Conservative prime minister since last week’s PMQs. Someone needs to get a grip. He is losing the confidence of the party.”
Juergen Maier, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and a former chief executive of Siemens, told the Guardian it was a “failed speech”. He said the speech was a “massive opportunity” after an absence of detail about levelling up in recent months.
But he said: “It was a flop. It was a ramble. There was lots of disjointed initiatives, some that obviously had no relevance at all … As a businessperson passionate about reindustrialising the north, it was just a huge disappointment.”
Kitty Ussher, of business leaders’ group the Institute of Directors, said Johnson’s speech offered little to inspire confidence and was “inappropriate” in places. “What business leaders want more than anything is a calm and reassuring macroeconomic environment that gives them the confidence to invest for the future. We haven’t seen much of that in the reporting of the prime minister’s speech.”
Two other business figures who were in the audience for the speech said they were surprised by Johnson’s promotion of Peppa Pig World, which is located more than 300 miles from the Port of Tyne where the speech was held.
“It was interesting that he asked a group of business leaders in the north-east if they have travelled six hours down the road to Peppa Pig World and then talk about levelling up,” said Michael Stirrup, chief executive of IT consultancy Waterstons. “It shows a bit of a lack of understanding, I think.”
“I wasn’t expecting a Peppa Pig reference,” said Neil Whittaker, director of marketing and communications at national training firm Learning Curve Group. “He seemed to lose his way quite a bit.”
The GMB union described the speech as “hogwash”.
Labour called it “shambolic” and proof of how unseriously Johnson takes business. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, commented: “No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny any more.”
Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said businesses needed clarity, but all they got was “rambling” from Johnson. He added: “The prime minister famously said he was going to ‘F’ business – the least he could do is to deliver a decent F-ing speech.”
The prime minister was reported in 2018 to have said “fuck business” when questioned about the sector’s concerns over a no-deal Brexit.
After the speech, Johnson was asked if he was OK by a journalist. The prime minister defended his performance, saying: “I think that people got the vast majority of the points I wanted to make, and I thought it went over well.”