Boris Johnson has always played the bumbling fool. Is this time different?

© Nazar Gonchar/
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Boris Johnson wanted the CBI to know that he visited Peppa Pig World over the weekend. Keir Starmer wanted the CBI to know that Labour will be fiscally responsible, prioritise skills, focus on investment over day-to-day spending and improve the Brexit deal. The Prime Minister’s address – described as “shambolic” not only by Labour but also a senior Downing Street source according to the BBC – could have been summed up by his infamous reported response to concerns over hard Brexit: “fuck business”. The opposition leader, keen to impress, could not have struck a more different tone: he delivered a serious, matter-of-fact series of pledges to business leaders. “I can promise you that the only F-words I will be using are foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty,” the Labour leader told the conference.

Starmer’s CBI speech was as much a pitch to voters who don’t trust Labour on the economy as a pitch to the business world. “Labour is back in business. The dual meaning is entirely deliberate” is how he kicked off. “We really don’t think that the solution to every problem is to throw cash at it,” he later said, promoting Labour’s fiscal rules (although obviously most of the party’s solutions do involve throwing cash at problems, albeit while promising to set up an ‘Office for Value for Money’). What caught everyone’s attention were the ramblings of Johnson, however, as the Prime Minister lost track of his notes during the speech, saying “forgive me, forgive me, forgive me” while hesitating, groaning and shuffling papers, and chose to focus on a cartoon pig who resembles a “Picasso-like hairdryer”.

But isn’t this just standard fare from bumbling ‘Boris’? Labour’s line is “that joke isn’t funny anymore”. There were some laughs in the room, though: it may have been embarrassed laughter, but I’m not sure that is any different from the past. What has changed is the attitude of the Conservative Party. Despite reservations, Tories picked Johnson because they saw a winner – and they were right. Yet since that election, Johnson has forced his MPs both to champion controversial policies and to publicly defend the subsequent awkward U-turns on them, and sent his MPs through the voting lobbies to protect a colleague who had clearly broken the rules before subjecting them all to intense scrutiny over their second jobs.

19 Tory MPs voted last night against government plans for the cap on social care costs, and many more abstained. Johnson won the vote, but only by a narrow majority of 26. As a journalist asked the Prime Minister after his speech yesterday: is everything OK? Downing Street is briefing against him, Conservative MPs are rebelling and The Times has called Johnson’s CBI efforts “dismal” in contrast to Starmer’s “impressive” offering. The key question raised by the recent iteration of the sleaze scandal was not only whether it had ‘cut through’ and caused lasting damage to Tory poll ratings, but also whether Conservatives were so angered by the chaos that they could decide themselves the end is near for Johnson. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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