Ben Lowry: Boris Johnson turned to humour when he lost his way in speech and it failed badly

Boris Johnson was mocked for Monday’s confused speech to the Confederation of British Industry.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 27th November 2021, 7:16 am
Updated Saturday, 4th December 2021, 6:33 am
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his disastrous adress to the CBI in Tyneside on Monday November 22, 2021. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his disastrous adress to the CBI in Tyneside on Monday November 22, 2021. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

He first seemed unable to find his place in his talk in Tyneside, and then he began to ramble about a visit to the Peppa Pig theme park.

It was a disastrous public performance by a sitting prime minister, let alone when he was addressing such a distinguished audience as the CBI on such an important subjects as levelling up the regional imbalances in the UK.

After seeing the news summaries of the event, I went online to find the entire speech to try to assess if it was as bad as people said when seen in its overall context.

Having done that, I think that in one respect what happened was quite simple, and rooted in hubris. The PM has been speaking publicly since school and by the time he reached Oxford University was far more accomplished as a stage performer than most people will ever be in their lives.

On Monday, Mr Johnson was moving confidently through his speech, glancing down at it, and turning pages as he went. He will have given such talks countless times, and so was able to bring theatrical emphasis to some of his sentences and to look up at the room.

Unlike the PM, I had barely ever spoken in public until my 40s, but I have done so enough now to know that if you have multiple pages they can easily get confused and need to be clearly numbered. To lose your place like that would be hellish.

The PM seemed to find a relevant page briefly but not the remainder of the speech. Once this happened, one option was to stop and spend what might have been minutes going slowly through pages one by one to re-find his place.

That would be excruciating for his audience. So his only other option was to improvise. He began to do so in a joking way. The humour was inappropriate and made the situation worse.

If he was hopelessly lost, the PM could have recapped from memory on the core points he had already made. The PM had made it 17 minutes into a 24-minute address, so he was almost finished.

It was astonishing that a head of government, who should have enough advisors to present him with a polished text, the order of which has been carefully numbered, then checked, lost his place at all.

But having done so Mr Johnson decided to try to make people laugh. Only a man who has got away with countless scrapes and gambles would have tried such a course, and this time it failed badly.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the paper:

• Ben Lowry Oct 9: Echoes of 2019, as Boris Johnson fails to proclaim his unionism in speech

• Ben Lowry Oct 2: Unionism could make great headway lobbying in the United States

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