Boris Johnson may have disgraced himself in front of the CBI this week, but we all have our off-days. While the symbolism of an embattled Prime Minister losing his place is irresistible, the fact is that any speech can go wrong.
Remember Theresa May’s coughing fit in 2017? Unlike her time in office, it went on-and-on. And if that wasn’t enough she was also interrupted by a protester and by a piece of the set falling down.
Yet while May’s mishaps weren’t her fault, the same can’t be said for Boris on Monday. His bizarre digression on the merits of Peppa Pig was the most unforced of unforced errors. So was his impression of a rumbling car engine (“arum arum araaaaaagh” — according to the official transcript). Judging the mood of an audience isn’t always easy, but a PM ought to know the difference between a gathering of business people and a kindergarten class.
The first job of every speechwriter — and giver — is to rise to the occasion. Boris Johnson failed on this basic requirement. At a time of profound economic uncertainty, what business leaders need to hear is a message of reassurance — not a sequence of rambling asides and silly noises.
But what should really worry the PM’s colleagues is that this isn’t the first time. Back in September, Johnson gave a speech to the UN General Assembly on climate change. As the curtain raiser for the COP26 conference an appropriately serious tone was required — plus a dash of inspiration. Instead, what we got was an exercise in glibness. The only bit that stood out — and garnered all the headlines — was a cheesy reference to Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
Another sow’s ear of a speech was his keynote on levelling-up back in July. This had been billed as a major statement on the Government’s flagship economic policy. In the event, it sunk without trace. Not only was there no new content, the PM’s delivery was all over the place.
So no one should be shocked by Boris Johnson’s performance on Monday — it is consistent with a well-established pattern. And it doesn’t just apply to speeches. He governs the same way that he speaks: chaotically.
Dominic Cummings has likened his former boss to a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel. Over-and-over again, we’ve seen this government veer-off on tangents that are every bit as unexpected as a Peppa Pig anecdote. This week it was the surprise social care amendment that caught so many Tory backbenchers off-guard. Before that, it was the screeching U-turn on parliamentary standards.
The Prime Minister wouldn’t have been in London to embark upon this disastrous course if he hadn’t flown back by private jet from the climate conference in Glasgow — where, surely, he might have made himself more useful. If ever there was an issue on which he ought to have maintained his focus for more than five seconds it is this one. But not even saving the world is enough to hold his attention.
To understand why, it’s helpful to think about the so-called Big Five personality traits known by the acronym OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
Some of these traits sound more positive than others, but there are positive and negative sides to getting a high (or low) score on any of them. For instance, someone who scores highly on conscientiousness might be an inflexible bore while someone who gets a low score might be brilliant improviser.
There’s no doubt that Boris Johnson is a brilliant improviser. He has navigated through troubled political waters in which his more conventional rivals have capsized. But the increasingly urgent question now facing the Government and the Conservative Party is how to deal with the downside of his upside.
Sorting out the speech-giving is the easy bit. Give him a script and tell him to stick to it. If he won’t use an autocue, then at least staple the copy of the speech he reads from. Clearly, he can’t be trusted to keep unbound pages in their proper order.
The much bigger challenge, though, is the man not the message.
Boris is at his best when some kind of external order is imposed upon him. As Mayor of London he was subject to the control of Downing Street. As a columnist, his talents shone most brightly when patient editors were on hand to polish his literary gems. But as Prime Minister, he’s been set free to follow his worst instincts.
Ever since he won the the biggest Conservative majority since the Eighties his position has been unassailable. The only government figure who tried to exert any discipline over him was Dominic Cummings — and look how that turned out.
This time, though, may be different. Cummings was acting alone, more or less, while the current challenge to Johnson’s authority extends much further. If those most concerned about the Prime Minister’s performance — from Red Wall backbenchers to party grandees — act in concert, they might stand a chance.
But what, specifically, could such an intervention hope to achieve? It’s true that people rarely change. However, within organisations, other people can offset their eccentricities.
The Downing Street operation desperately needs a chief executive figure to Boris Johnson’s chairman of the board. The PM would still set the overall direction of policy, but someone without wonky wheels would be responsible for implementation.
So are we looking for a new Dominic Cummings? No, because the confrontational approach clearly doesn’t work with someone as headstrong as Johnson. For a more appropriate model we need to go back to the Eighties.
Though Margaret Thatcher was a more conscientious Prime Minister than the current occupant of Number 10, she too had her hare-brained side. Eventually, in the form of the Poll Tax, it would get the better of her. Nevertheless, her eleven years in the job have yet to be matched by any of her successors. In part, her political survival can be credited to the moderating influence of William Whitelaw — a cabinet minister very much not in the Thatcherite mould, but completely loyal to her. Famously, she proclaimed that “every Prime Minister needs a Willie” — and, sniggers aside, she was right. Boris needs a Willie, too — and his critics in the party should insist that he gets one.
But who? Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Sajid Javid are threats as heirs apparent, so they won’t do. Michael Gove is an important source of counsel, but his relationship with the PM is complicated. As for Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, I wouldn’t describe their influence as “moderating”.
Rather, I’d look to Alok Sharma. The former Business Secretary is widely respected. His role as President of the COP26 conference has demonstrated his grasp of detail and his diplomatic finesse. He is trusted by his colleagues, including the Prime Minister, and has no obvious leadership ambitions. And now that COP26 is over, he’s in need of a new job.