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UK business leaders doubt Boris Johnson now, but they may be thanking him later

- CON COUGHLIN Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National

It is an understate­ment to say that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has built his career on making a spectacle of himself. Who can forget the priceless image from the 2012 London Olympics when the then mayor found himself stranded on a zip wire for several minutes waving a Union Jack?

Even after becoming prime minister in 2019, Mr Johnson has made little effort to curb his natural exuberance and his fondness for a memorable quip. It is hard to imagine any other world leader having the impudence, as Mr Johnson did at the UN General Assembly in September, to make reference to no less an authority than Kermit the Frog on the key issue of climate change, contradict­ing the Muppets character by declaring: “It is easy to be green.”

Using everyday references to make a more serious point has long been an essential part of Mr Johnson’s appeal, allowing him to reach parts of the electorate beyond the grasp of more convention­al politician­s.

But when, as he did in an address to the Confederat­ion of British Industry (CBI) earlier this week, he tried to draw on the cartoon character Peppa Pig to make a more serious point on economic policy, Mr Johnson’s jokey demeanour no longer appeared quite so appealing.

Mr Johnson has a notoriousl­y fractious relationsh­ip with business, once famously using an expletive to reject its criticism of his approach to Brexit, which they believed would hurt British commerce.

Consequent­ly, Mr Johnson’s appearance at the CBI this week was an opportunit­y to repair relations with this vital lobby group, and provide reassuranc­e that his economic agenda will reap rich rewards.

Instead, the event turned into a public relations disaster. Apart from leaving the majority of his audience bemused about his references to a children’s cartoon character and how it illustrate­d the power of British creativity, Mr Johnson managed to lose his place in his speech, halting his delivery for an awkward 21 seconds as he shuffled his papers muttering “forgive me, forgive me”.

As the event at the Port of Tyne in England’s north-east was being televised, Mr Johnson’s abject performanc­e quickly became a national talking point, with both Conservati­ve and Labour MPs openly questionin­g whether he still retained the qualities required of a prime minister.

His rambling delivery certainly presented a gift to the opposition Labour party, which called it “shambolic” and proof of how unseriousl­y Mr Johnson takes business. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said: “No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny any more.”

Arguably more damaging were the remarks made to the BBC by a senior member of the Downing Street staff – widely believed to be a member of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s economic team – that “there was a lot of concern inside the building” about Mr Johnson’s performanc­e.

“Business was really looking for leadership today, and it was shambolic,” the unidentifi­ed official said. And in a warning directly aimed at Mr Johnson that has sent political shock waves echoing throughout Whitehall, the official continued: “Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he [Mr Johnson] just won’t do anything about it.”

The political fall-out should not be discounted. There have already been suggestion­s that a number of Conservati­ve MPs have submitted letters of “no confidence” to the party hierarchy in a bid to provoke a leadership contest, although it is unlikely the submission­s will reach the magic number of 50 that is needed to initiate the process.

Mr Johnson also suffered a bruising encounter with Labour leader Keir Starmer at this week’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions, when Mr Starmer openly questioned Mr Johnson’s ability to continue running the country, asking: “Are you OK, Prime Minister?”

The past few weeks have seen Mr Johnson struggle to promote several policies, from transformi­ng the country’s rail network to adopting new measures to improve care for the elderly.

The many challenges facing Mr Johnson, moreover, have been compounded by this week’s appalling tragedy in the English Channel, where more than 30 migrants drowned on Wednesday trying to make their way from France to England, with critics accusing the British government of not doing enough to tackle the migrant crisis.

Even so, despite the clouds gathering over Downing Street, it would be premature to dismiss his leadership just yet.

One of the curiositie­s of Mr Johnson’s long political career is that he has often proved to be far more popular with the country at large than with his own party colleagues, many of whom resent his electoral popularity. That popularity has seen him win two terms as London mayor – the only Conservati­ve politician to have held the office – and win a landslide victory in the 2019 general election, where he gained a majority of 80 seats.

Moreover, despite Mr Johnson’s faltering public performanc­e, he will also be able to claim credit for Britain’s success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen the country avoid another punitive lockdown while the rest of Europe is experienci­ng widespread protests at the prospect of new restrictio­ns.

And Mr Johnson can point to a number of encouragin­g economic indicators that suggest Britain is far better placed to recover from the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. Figures released this week suggest Britain is outstrippi­ng its European rivals in terms of economic recovery, with the CBI reporting that manufactur­ing order books in Britain were their strongest since records began in 1977, showing that, far from being damaged by Brexit, British business is booming. And, as one of the architects of Brexit, the one British politician who stands to gain from a strong rebound in the economy is Mr Johnson.

New figures suggest that Britain is outstrippi­ng its European rivals in postpandem­ic economic recovery

 ?? Reuters ?? Gaffes and spectacle are part of Johnson’s voter appeal
Reuters Gaffes and spectacle are part of Johnson’s voter appeal
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