LONDON — “Is everything okay?” is probably not a question any world leader wants to be asked, especially in relation to their competence.
The 25-minute speech, in which the prime minister also compared himself to Moses, was delivered Monday in Tyneside, northeastern England, for the annual Confederation of British Industry conference, an event considered to be the highest-profile on Britain’s business calendar.
Tensions between the government and business have lingered after lengthy and strained negotiations during Britain’s exit from the European Union. Much of British business had argued that Brexit would hinder deals with the E.U., a key trade partner.
During the speech, Johnson rifled through his notes in what looked like a confused state for more than 20 seconds, saying, “Forgive me” three times as the group of prominent business leaders sat in silence.
At another point, Johnson bellowed, “Vroom vroom rah rah,” as he recalled his time as a motoring correspondent, mimicking the sound of a car engine and discussing electric vehicles. He then declared he had come “down from Sinai,” before comparing his 10-point plan for a greener economy to the biblical Ten Commandments — although his list featured offshore wind and hydrogen.
Unusual speeches that baffle are somewhat typical of Johnson, who recently delivered a speech on climate that cited Kermit the Frog. While his rhetoric often amuses fans who find it funny or accessible, his latest speech sparked disapproval — and even anger — not only among opposition party lawmakers, who branded the speech “shambolic,” but also among some members of his own Conservative party.
One Conservative lawmaker derided the speech as “embarrassing” and told the Guardian that Johnson was “losing the confidence of the party,” and the Financial Times quoted a member of Parliament as saying the leader had “lost his mojo.”
“Frankly, is everything okay?” an ITV journalist asked Britain’s leader later on Monday, while Tuesday morning’s newspaper front pages were scathing, with the Metro describing it as a “Peppa Pig’s ear” of a speech and the Times of London calling the speech “chaotic.” Johnson’s bizarre remarks also propelled the term “Peppa Pig” to trend for more than 24 hours in Britain as many Twitter users cited parts of the speech.
Many of Johnson’s critics accused him of using the strange speech as an attempt to divert attention from a recent scandal involving one of Johnson’s allies, Owen Paterson, who broke lobbying rules by accepting payments from two companies he promoted while serving as a lawmaker.
Defending his speech, Johnson replied: “I think that people got the vast majority of the points I wanted to make and I thought it went over well.”
During Monday’s speech, after stating that the government “cannot fix everything” and that “the true driver of growth is not government but the energy and dynamism and originality of the private sector,” Johnson pivoted to Peppa Pig — the widely known British cartoon character, described by creators as a “lovable but slightly bossy” creature who usually wears a “delightful red dress.”
“Yesterday, I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World,” Johnson said, before asking the audience who among them had been to the amusement park in England. “Not enough,” he exclaimed, seemingly unimpressed by the lack of raised hands.
Johnson recently visited the attraction based on the British children’s television series with his wife and toddler son Wilfred, much to the delight of photographers, who snapped them riding together in a miniature car.
“Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place,” he continued, citing the theme park. “It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, a heavy emphasis on new mass transit systems, I noticed, even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”
He continued to lavish praise on the series for close to a minute, before saying, “The real lesson for me about going to Peppa Pig World was about the power of U.K. creativity,” and praising the fact that the series “would now be exported to 180 countries.”
Rival politicians were not impressed with the message. Among them was Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who said: “Businesses are crying out for clarity. Instead, all they got was Boris Johnson rambling on about Peppa Pig.”
For Johnson, this is not just one bad day of headlines: He has had a string of controversies in recent weeks, including struggling care plans for the elderly and vulnerable; allegations of “sleaze” in his party over the Paterson affair; and accusations that he “betrayed” northern England after a proposed high-speed rail line was cut back.
This is important in Britain, where Johnson’s pledge to “level up” northern England was a key part of his winning election campaign.
As a result, some also pointed out that Johnson was urging people to visit the Peppa Pig theme park, more than 300 miles south of where he was giving the speech.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.