Boris Johnson criticised the creativity of civil servants for not conceiving of the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig, as he gave a rambling speech to business leaders in north-east England in which he also compared himself to Moses and imitated the noise of an accelerating car.
Speaking at the annual Confederation for British Industry conference, the prime minister meandered through a variety of topics – confirming the announcement trailed overnight by Downing Street that new regulations for developers will force them to install electric vehicle charging points and heralding the start of a new green industrial revolution.
However, he also became distracted at points, asking business executives to raise their hand if they had been to Peppa Pig World in Hampshire, where he took his son, Wilf, with wife, Carrie, over the weekend.
“The government cannot fix everything, and government sometimes should get out of your hair,” Johnson insisted, claiming that “the true driver of growth is not the government” but in fact the private sector, whose energy and originality he praised.
To illustrate this, Johnson explained: “Yesterday I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World. Hands up if you’ve been to Peppa Pig World!
“I loved it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, heavy emphasis on new mass transit systems. Even if they’re a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”
The “shambolic” speech was criticised by the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. She said it showed “how unseriously he takes British business” and the lack of a government plan for growth, adding: “No one was laughing, because the joke’s not funny any more.”
Richard Swart, a senior executive at north-east-based manufacturing firm Berger Group, told the Mirror the speech was “catastrophic” and “way below par for a prime minister”.
He said companies were “desperate for statesmanlike behaviour to help us navigate through Covid, Brexit, labour shortages and other challenges we face” and that it was time for the Conservatives to “focus on what’s good for the country and choose more responsible leadership”.
Two other businesspeople who were also in the room for the speech said they were surprised by Johnson’s promotion of Peppa Pig World, located more than 300 miles from the Port of Tyne, where Johnson’s speech on promoting economic opportunities in north-east England was held.
“It was interesting that he asked a group of business leaders in the north-east if they have travelled six hours down the road to Peppa Pig World and then talk about levelling up,” said Michael Stirrup, chief executive of IT consultancy Waterstons. “It shows a bit of a lack of understanding I think”.
“I wasn’t expecting a Peppa Pig reference,” said Neil Whittaker, director of marketing and communications at national training firm Learning Curve Group. “He seemed to lose his way quite a bit.”
Turning his fire on the BBC and Whitehall, Johnson continued: “But the real lesson for me was about the power of UK creativity. Who would have believed that a pig that looks like a hairdryer or possibly a Picasso-like hairdryer, a pig that was rejected by the BBC and has now been exported to 180 countries with theme parks both in America and China as well as in the New Forest – is a business that’s worth at least £6bn to this country – and counting.
“Now I think that is pure genius don’t you? No government in the world, no Whitehall civil servant, would conceivably have come up with Peppa.”
Johnson also talked about his first experience of electric vehicles, which he said he tested as motoring correspondent for GQ magazine, at which point he imitated the sound of an accelerating car.
The prime minister recalled one looked like a “wheeled rabbit hutch”, while the other was the first Tesla for sale in the UK – though he said they both looked like “unused outdoor gym equipment”. However Johnson heralded the emergence of electric vehicles, proclaiming: “The tipping point has come.”
At one point, he lost his place during the speech and spent 20 seconds repeating “forgive me” as he shuffled the printed pages on his podium into some semblance of order.
After criticism from other Labour figures that the speech was a “clustercringe” and “national embarrassment”, Johnson defended his performance in a short clip with broadcasters.
He said: “I think that people got the vast majority of the points I wanted to make, and I thought it went over well.”
Johnson also compared himself to Moses, for coming up with a “10-point plan” for helping businesses invest in tackling climate change. He described it as “a new decalogue that I produced exactly a year ago” – and added: “When I came down from signing it, I said to my officials, the new Ten commandments were that “thou shalt develop” industries like offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon capture.
Pressed on the serious issues of apparent backtracks on social care reform and rail investment, Johnson was deeply defensive.
Despite being accused of “betraying” voters in northern England who helped him into Downing Street, Johnson insisted critics of the plan to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 and build no new line allowing trains to travel through Bradford between Manchester and Leeds were “missing the point”.
He said the government did not want to “just endlessly cast your way through virgin countryside” and instead he favoured using existing tracks and bring them back into service, adding: “We are doing the Beeching reversal.”
He said the £96bn investment was “colossal” and added: “It’s not rowing back, it’s better.”