Kate Andrews

The gap between Boris and business widens

The gap between Boris and business widens
Boris Johnson addresses the CBI conference (Getty images)
Text settings

Boris Johnson kickstarted the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference this week with a surprising performance. The plan was to emphasise his government’s commitment to regenerating the economy, post-pandemic, with a green agenda. In practice, it was a confused and muddled speech which even the speech-giver (let alone the audience) found difficult to follow.

The highlights were dominated by awkward moments: Johnson asking the room early on who had received their booster shots, only to quickly follow up that everyone looked ‘young and thrusting’ – presumably to cover for an insufficient number of hands in the air. A chunk of the speech was dedicated to the PM reminiscing about what he said was his favourite job to date: his time as motoring correspondent for GQ magazine. This anecdote culminated in Johnson imitating the ‘vroom, vroom’ of a petrol engine.

The mishaps, pauses, stumbling and messy nature of the speech might have been forgivable – chalked up to the PM’s habit, applauded by many, of injecting a little bit of chaos wherever he goes – had the coherent parts of the speech delivered more substance. But business leaders in South Shields who were hoping to hear from Johnson as to what his government holds in store for them will have been sorely disappointed. Instead the PM served up instead a regurgitation of market platitudes and his vague ten-point plan to promote a ‘green industrial revolution’.

At the heart of his awkward speech was a disconnect between the Prime Minister and businesses that has been growing for some time: mainly that Johnson is uncomfortably unaware of what the business community still needs as it recovers from multiple lockdowns. Johnson was quick to point out that unemployment figures have so far been contained, with predictions of chronic, 12 per cent unemployment never coming to fruition (the official figure sits under five per cent). What he failed to emphasise, however, is that the economy has still not bounced back to its pre-pandemic levels, with estimates now suggesting that we’re entering a more difficult phase of growth.

Whatever the PM might suggest, the scarring from lockdown is unlikely to be solved by ‘bootcamps’ for ‘entrepreneurship’ or pledges to deregulate that never come with specific details. Most grating, perhaps, was Johnson’s call for ‘less taxation’ when it is his government that has overseen hikes to corporation tax and a new National Insurance levy. (One business was delighted with the PM’s response, however: Peppa Pig World, which took up six minutes of the PM’s speech, told Mr Steerpike how delighted it was with the coverage of the show.)

Many will speculate about why Johnson was so off his game this morning. After a rocky few weeks in No. 10, perhaps the PM is still trying to get back into the swing of things. But his dependence on his speech this morning – and failure to ad lib, a usual strength of the Prime Minister's – may indicate just how uncomfortable Johnson feels in the presence of the UK's business leaders. Having so far failed to ease their burdens, it was clear that in a speech full of content, he had very little to say.

Sign up for my weekly economics newsletter here.