Johnson’s in Peppa-land while Starmer goes to Dictionary Corner: How two terrible speeches fooled hacks in equally predictable ways…
Not a dead cat but an animated pig strategy.
It’s standard practice for transcripts of speeches by the Prime Minister and other ministers to be uploaded to the government website and so it was with Boris Johnson’s remarks to the CBI Conference. A line at the top of the page recording the rambling oration notes that it is a “transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered”. But that, like so many things associated with Johnson, is, in the parlance of parliament, “economical with the truth”.
The moment when Johnson, grappling with his papers with the same sweaty handed clumsiness he normally reserves for people who aren’t currently his wife or demands from the Child Maintenance Service, totally lost his place isn’t included in the record. A search for “forgive me”, the phrase he said to the audience multiple times but which he’s usually so reticient to say to wives, colleagues, ethics investigators, and the electorate comes up empty.
But if you’ve always wanted Boris Johnson’s personal review of Peppa Pig World, part of Paulton’s Park, the theme park which squats like a neon turd on the edge of the New Forest, you are very much in luck. Having visited the attraction this weekend with his current wife Carrie — about whom he definitely did not recently express “buyer’s remorse” — and his son Wilf, one of the children he can’t avoid acknowledging, Johnson told the audience:
… yesterday, I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig world. Hands up if you’ve been to Peppa Pig World? [a few hands went up] Not enough!
I was a bit hazy about what I would find at Peppa Pig World, but I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It had safe streets. Discipline in schools. Heavy emphasis on new mass transit systems, I noticed. Even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.
But the real lesson for me about going to Peppa Pig World was about the power of UK creativity.
Who would have believed, Tony1, that a pig that looks like a hairdryer, or possibly a sort of Picasso-like hairdryer, a pig that was rejected by the BBC, would now be exported to 180 countries, with theme parks in both America and in China, as well as in the New Forest, and a business that is worth at least £6bn to this country — £6 billion and counting? I think that it is pure genius, don’t you?
No government in the world, no Whitehall civil servant in the world, could conceivably have come up with Peppa.
Of course, Boris Johnson finds the notion of a world where putting your head in the trough is socially acceptable appealing. And, unlike his former boss, David Cameron, being surrounded by people who have plunged themselves into pig’s heads for entirely salubrious reasons won’t have brought back memories2. But Johnson’s premise that Peppa Pig is a pure product of capitalist ingenuity, free from the ‘dread’ hand of the state is as empty as his other claims.
Mark Barker, Peppa Pig’s co-creator (along with Neville Astley), is a graduate of the National Film and Television School, which sprang from a recommendation by civil servants at the Department of Education and Science in 1967 that an institution should be created to train people to join the British film industry. Barker was a contemporary of Nick Park, the Wallace & Gromit creator.
Johnson’s claim that Peppa burst forth from the private sector like a peculiarly pink Dionysus3 is just a banal variant on his frequent — and equally erroneous — attempts to assign all the praise for the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine to the corporate side. He repeated the vaccine lie in the same speech, along with a lie by ommission, talking about “that awful moment when we realised we simply didn’t have the domestic production” rather than deliberate erosion of stock piles and capacity that occurred under successive governments.
The sketch writers of The Times and Telegraph alike found a way to make the Prime Minister’s pathetic performance a success. Beneath the headline I’ve seen my share of prime ministers. Not many make car noises, Quentin Letts — the human embodiment of a supercilious smirk — delights in phrases like “great funkapolitan hive” because he has a similarly hackish mentality to the Prime Minister; both men delight in shovelling syllables with little regard for sense.
After dashing off some observations with the same level of care and attention shown by the page-flinging PM — the set up being that the CBI is full of boring people who just don’t get Johnson joie de leave — Letts concludes:
Eventually the performance ended. Laughter. Applause! Some will be appalled. Others will have been grateful that he spared them the usual platitudes — and showed us all PMs, or at least this one, can be as chaotic as the rest of us first thing on a Monday.
Skim through Letts’ limp back catalogue and you’ll find he rarely, if ever, misses the chance to mock female MPs for their appearance, to sneer at anyone with an accent that’s anything other than cut glass, and is predictably less imbued with patience when his subject isn’t a Tory. Ed Miliband still can’t shake an ungainly encounter with a bacon sandwich from 7 years ago but Boris Johnson seeming like he’s that one pissed dad at parents’ evening is “relatable”.
Over at The Daily Telegraph, builder-castigating, bow tie-lover, Tim Stanley, also finds a way to praise his paper’s once and future star columnist. Headlined Boris Johnson’s baffling Peppa Pig speech was certainly memorable and with an intro that stretches credulity more than a truly put-upon Stretch Armstrong (“Prime Minister’s muddled effort gets coverage most speeches to the CBI conference can only dream of”), Stanley’s piece opens with some eyerolling but still manages to pretzel itself into something resembling praise:
Yup. Nailed it. History, philosophy and one-in-the-eye for whatever Whitehall idiot printed off this speech in the wrong order. Later that day, the leader of the opposition - can't remember the name - went on and on to the same audience about jobs and techno-hoo-ha, but all they'll be talking about on the evening news is the hairdryer pig, which is a win for the Prime Minister and, in a way, a win for the CBI too - because otherwise this conference would barely have scraped Newsnight.
This is the Tory press version of the familiar social media charge that Johnson is chaotic because he’s always engaged in a pre-planned “dead cat” strategy to distract and discombobulate the media and his political opponents.
While it’s true that the average Conservative Party electoral campaign contains more dead cats than a trainee serial killer’s chest freezer, people have become too fond of throwing the term around whenever a politician — Johnson, especially — does something stupid.
In 2013, feeling overly-confident after his second successful London mayoral campaign, Johnson boasted about the “dead cat” advice his campaign manager (and Australia’s second most sinister native son) Lynton Crosby had given him. Slipped into a column on an unrelated topic — bankers’ bonuses — he explained Crosby’s thinking like this:
Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.
There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table, and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed and disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant.
The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.
The assumption from a lot of observers has been that the CBI performance was a “dead cat” to distract from the third reading of the Health & Care Bill, which is an attempt to fracture the NHS into much smaller parts and make it easier for more private companies to seep in through the cracks.
But to assume Johnson got lost in his speech as some tactical multi-dimensional move to force the Health & Care Bill off the front pages is to labour under two misapprehensions: 1) That significant chunks of the press would dedicate their front pages to the complexities of legislation and 2) that Johnson’s operation is one run with fox-like cunning and not oafish, essay crisis entitlement.
And if Johnson wanted to achieve anything at the CBI, it was to ensure that Keir Starmer’s speech would be nothing more than a footnote. It’s less a dead cat strategy and more a jingling keys manouevre; a creature of the press, Johnson is well aware that hacks are easily distracted and performs his speeches as clownish tumbling acts with pop culture references, classical allusions, and bizarre turns of phrases because he knows it will ensure he’s the headliner and Starmer is the opening band who obsessed more over tuning up than having memorable songs.
Jon Stone @joncstoneKeir Starmer tells business leaders at CBI conference: "Labour is back in business. The dual meaning of this is entirely deliberate!"
Rachel Reeves — the Shadow Chancellor and latest Labour frontbencher the Tories are pretending to be “terrified” by — called the speech “shambolic” and added, “No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny anymore.” But her leader’s speech — desperate supplication to the assembled business leaders which will have had his name sake Keir Hardie spinning in his grave at Flash-like speeds — passed through listeners’ minds like mental laxatives.
Starmer dragged Boris Johnson’s “fuck business” jibe back for a clumsy line (“I can promise you that the only ‘F words’ I’ll be using are ‘foreign investment’, ‘fair trade’, ‘fiscal policy’, and ‘fiduciary duty’.”) that made him sound like Countdown’s worst ever Dictionary Corner resident, but it’ll still fool some journalists.
There are columnists — including Philip Collins who’s allowed to do double duty as a Starmer speechwriter and News Statesman contributor — who are desperate to cling on to the idea of Starmer as forensic. But the reality is a stuttering, stumbling and stolid man who says things like, “Labour is back in business. And the dual meaning of this is entirely deliberate.” before staring down at his papers and wishing the words “pause for laugh” would grow teeth and devour him.
The recent run of critical Daily Mail front pages — which I’m pretty sure will continue under the new editor and with Paul Dacre back in the fold as the Daily Mail Group’s Editor-in-Chief — suggest we are coming to the end of the ‘Booster Boris’ era, as does today’s briefing to Laura Kuenssberg by a “senior Number 10 source” that:
There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM… it’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.
But that doesn’t mean that Keir Starmer — despite the brief and unsustained bump in the polls — is on course to be Prime Minister. Theresa May was in office for three years and there is no chance that Johnson — who hit his second anniversary as Prime Minister on 24 July — will go willingly before he beats that. I think it’s also unlikely that he’ll beat his Eton and Oxford rival Cameron’s 6 years in Number 10, mostly because he’s itching to make ‘real’ money again. When he’s done, the press will row in behind the new Tory leader.
The hacks who are desperate to justify their support for Starmer will continue to argue that he’s about to make a breakthrough… any minute now. And those at outlets like The Daily Telegraph will continue to find ways to excuse Johnson’s embarassments, dead cats, and live (if fictional) pigs. Read the newspapers’ analysis of either CBI speech and you’ll not encounter reality, but conclusions that those columnists and reporters walked into the room with pre-written.
Watch Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, another cartoon from the studio behind Peppa, and you’ll discover that the Fairy Mayor bears more than a passing resemblance to Boris Johnson. But despite having wings and hanging out with elves and other fairies, Mr Mayor is much less cartoonish and two-dimensional than his real-life inspiration. And a lot kinder too.
Tony Danker, the CBI Director-General, who was obliged to nod and laugh at this uninterrupted stream of bluster and bibble.
It’s worth remembering here that the ‘Cameron fucking a pig’s head’ story was a single sourced rumour trafficked by Isabel Oakeshott, a hack who previously burned a source so badly that they went to jail. But print the myth because it’s funny.
Yes, like Boris Johnson, I can also force classical references into seemingly unrelated sentences.