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23 November 2021

Is Boris Johnson losing his way?

A rambling speech at the CBI suggests the Prime Minister needs a new trick to soothe ill feeling among his colleagues.

By Stephen Bush

Whatever did he mean by that? Boris Johnson’s appearance at the CBI, in which he rambled about Peppa Pig and compared himself to Moses before losing his place – or, at least, appearing to lose his place – in his speech has set tongues wagging across Westminster, most importantly in the Tory party, about whether or not the Prime Minister is losing his way.

Of course, the “woah, I’ve lost my place, woah, do I even have a speech prepared, oh look, it’s right here!” routine is a very, very, very old Johnson trick.

I suspect the biggest difference was how it was received in the hall: the audience, whether because they’ve seen the trick before or simply because of a broader antipathy to the Prime Minister, met him with a wall of silence. A comedian may die on their feet doing the same routine – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are losing their powers or appeal. 

That said, sometimes they are: sometimes when a comedian’s shtick falls flat it’s the beginning of the long, slow transition from a highly-rated BBC One show to failing to pack out the venue on a cruise ship. And one reason why today’s papers are covering it as if it might be different this time is because the mood in the Conservative Party is different this time, as Paul Waugh over at the i and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg both describe well

Johnson has fallen out of fashion among Tory MPs before: at the time of his resignation as foreign secretary, his stock was about as low as it had ever been. Less than a year later, he was elected party leader with the support of a majority of his parliamentary colleagues. 

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Part of the problem is the inevitable wastage rate any leader suffers in parliament – as the ranks of the disgruntled, the sacked, the ideologically and personally opposed and so on grow on their own back benches.

That’s one reason why the government’s majority on social care last night was just 26. Less than a year ago, Johnson was able to reset the mood around his operation by getting rid of Dominic Cummings and bringing back into the fold some of those Cummings had sacked. He may need a similar trick to soothe ill feeling among his colleagues: but I wouldn’t write off his ability to find one just yet.

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[See also: Boris Johnson’s leadership steered the Tories to power – but it will also be their undoing]

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