CBI conference: Boris Johnson veers off road in speech to business leaderson November 22, 2021 at 3:54 pm

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Boris Johnson’s mentions of Peppa Pig, Lenin, and his car impression, made for a surprise journey for the CBI.

Boris Johnson travelled to north-east England on Monday to deliver a speech to one of his target audiences – the men and women driving British businesses.

But the 25-minute journey at the CBI’s conference took some awkward turns as the prime minister tried to fuel enthusiasm for his green industrial revolution.

And his final destination left some rather confused passengers in his wake.

After saying government “cannot fix everything” and that “the true driver of growth is not government but the energy and dynamism and originality of the private sector”, Mr Johnson turned to CBI chief Tony Danker and said: “Yesterday I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World.”

He asked the audience for a show of hands for who had been to the Hampshire attraction, and after a few titters and an expression of “not enough” from the PM, he accelerated.

“I was a bit hazy about what I would find at Peppa Pig World, but I loved it,” he said.

“Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place.

“It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, a heavy emphasis on mass transit systems I noticed, even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”

Slowing to the end of his anecdote, he said: “The real lesson for me going to Peppa Pig World… was about the power of UK creativity.

“Who would have believed a pig who looks like… a Picasso like hairdryer, a pig that was rejected by the BBC, would now be exported to 180 countries and theme parks both in America and China, as well as in the New Forest and be a business worth at least £6bn to this country and counting.

“I think that is pure genius don’t you? No government in the world, no Whitehall civil servant, would have conceivably come up with Peppa.”

Boris Johnson

Image source, George Edgar/Handout via REUTERS

While this strange detour got a lot of reaction – with Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey calling Peppa Pig “a perfect metaphor for Johnson’s chaotic, incompetent government” – the PM’s speech had several bumps in the road.

His first stop was the big sell on electric cars accompanied by a potted history of his career as a motoring correspondent – from driving the first Tesla launched in the UK to a seemingly well-practised impression of its petrol rivals.

“[Electric vehicles] may not burble like sucking doves,” he told the gathered professionals. “And they may not have that ‘vrrrom vrrrom raaah raaah’ that you like.

“But they have so much torque that they move off the lights faster than a Ferrari.”

The reception to his imitation was as quiet as a Toyota Prius, so it was unclear if the government policy to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 had made pole position.

But the PM stayed on course, moving onto his personal 10 point plan that would make it a gentle ride for businesses to reach the lean, green finish line.

Mr Johnson perhaps made a jump too ambitious for even Evel Knievel when he appeared to compare himself to Moses as he “came down from [Mount] Sinai and [told] my officials [about] the new 10 commandments” – pledges including more investment in wind power and hydrogen technologies.

But that was still less of a surprise than a Conservative prime minister, with an engine full of quotations, turning to a Russian revolutionary to drive his point home.

“Lenin once said that the Communist Revolution was Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” he told the crowd.

“Well, I hesitate to quote Lenin before the Confederation of British Industry, but the coming industrial revolution is green power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

As the business leaders got their head around that sharp left turn, there was an unscheduled pit stop for the PM, who, while known for his oratory, got stranded at a red light.

After urging people back to office, saying there were “reasons why Mother Nature does not like working from home”, the PM was lost.

What followed was 21 seconds of silence, filled with the occasional mumble of “forgive me” and much ruffling of papers, as he lost his place in his speech.

But he got back on track to talk about skills – promising the mechanics that make British business run smoothly would be trained up – and, of course, the government’s Integrated Rail Plan, which despite a raft of critical coverage, he claimed it would be “transformatory”.

After questions on other issues of the day – that train plan again, and criticism of plans for the social care cap – Mr Johnson left the stage.

Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said it was a “shambolic speech”, adding: “No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny anymore.”

But later, before heading back to Downing Street, the PM gave an interview to a reporter, who simply asked: “Is everything OK?”

Mr Johnson said he thought people had “got the vast majority of the points” he wanted to make and that the speech “went over well”.

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