No rain on Boris Johnson's parade just yet

Despite a difficult few weeks, the British prime minister will remain in power on account of the UK's economic rebound

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 of the capital 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 other parts of the electorate that are 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 British business, once famously using an expletive to reject its criticism of his approach to the Brexit negotiations, which they believed would put British commerce at a disadvantage.

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 ambitious 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 then managed to lose his place in his prepared 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 to fulfil the office of 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 unnamed 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 number of 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 undoubtedly seen Mr Johnson going through a difficult spell as he has struggled to promote several key policies, from transforming the country's rail network to setting out new measures for improving social care provision 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.

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The one British politician who stands to gain from a strong rebound in the economy is Boris Johnson

Even so, despite the storm clouds gathering over Downing Street, with backbench Conservative MPs openly questioning whether Mr Johnson should remain in post, it would be premature to dismiss his leadership just yet.

One of the curiosities of Mr Johnson's longstanding 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, which 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, when 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.

Published: November 25th 2021, 2:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

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