Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
I thought Boris Johnson’s Peppa Pig riff was ingenious. Anyone born since the turn of the century, and any parent of such a person, will be familiar with Peppa’s happy, two-dimensional universe.
The PM was making a solidly conservative point – that free enterprise, unlike government regulation, is unplanned, unpredictable and capable of spreading wealth and happiness across continents – in a way that might appeal to the unconvinced. He marshalled the gift for imagery that made him the best-paid columnist in Fleet Street (“Picassoid hairdryer”), and he did so with his characteristic largeness of spirit.
I appreciate that mine is a minority opinion. Looking online an hour after the speech, delivered to a slightly po-faced CBI audience in Tyneside, I saw that the media were united in their scorn. The PM had been “rambling” (Mirror, Bloomberg) and “bungling” (Times, Evening Standard). He had delivered a “bizarre” (Guardian, Scotsman, Metro) “rant” (Express). Even his old employer, The Spectator, called it a “disaster”.
Scrolling through the withering headlines, I could find only one that defied the consensus. The Daily Echo, no longer the force it was, perhaps, but still read by a few of us here in Hampshire, was pleased with the name-check: “Boris Johnson praises Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park in Hampshire”.
Now mirth is a necessarily personal thing. Some people snort, with Peppa-like delight, at Johnson’s chromatic metaphors; others look on in gloomy disapproval. Since he went into politics, a third group has inevitably emerged: those who mine his old columns and speeches looking for things to be outraged by.
For example, a 2002 Telegraph article in which he deftly satirised what is nowadays called “white saviour complex” is habitually reduced to the single phrase “watermelon smiles”. If you read the whole piece, it is clear that Johnson was poking fun at Tony Blair’s neo-colonialism. But if you are determined to take offence – and it helps if you genuinely have no sense of humour – you will manage.
Let’s allow that there have always been some people who get Johnson and some who don’t. Throughout his career, some have seen him as a brilliant wordsmith, others as a buffoon. Fair enough. But how are we to explain how attitudes have shifted so suddenly, especially in the newspapers?
The idea that Johnson is more shambolic than he used to be, or that his speeches have become more off-the-wall, simply doesn’t stack up. Consider, to pluck an example more or less at random, the interview he gave during the 2019 leadership race in which he spoke of painting model buses. It was not qualitatively different from his more recent speeches. But, back then, only his most dour critics refused to see the funny side. Even The Guardian called his performance “mesmerising”.
What has changed? Not, we may be sure, the style of the PM’s utterances. No, what has changed is the sympathy of his erstwhile press allies. As with the sudden spate of supposed “sleaze” stories, many of which amount to nothing more than a reminder that some MPs have long-standing, useful and proper jobs, the withdrawal of the benefit of the doubt is a symptom of something else. It is always easier to laugh at the jokes of someone you like, and Rightist columnists no longer indulge their former colleague.
Again and again, we read complaints that an 80-seat majority is being squandered and that the Government is behaving little differently from Labour. For tabloids, the focus of their disappointment is the flotilla of little boats crossing the Channel day after day. For broadsheets, it is the realisation that the vast spending increases occasioned during the lockdown will never be wholly reversed, and that, 1940s-style, we are living through a semi-permanent expansion of the British state.
For what it’s worth, I think the former criticism is unfair. The UK is constrained by a series of international laws and agreements. But if any PM is going find a way around those constraints, it is this one. Ask yourself which other senior politician would be likelier to, for example, process applications offshore, Ozzie rules.
When it comes to the spending addiction, I’m afraid I am less sanguine. I struggle to think of an example of where Number 10 has come out against a major spending proposal, whether on HS2, social care, free school meals, net zero, minimum wage hikes, defence or policing – though most of these are dwarfed by the increases in healthcare expenditure. Ministers seem determined to defer the reckoning – but they cannot put it off forever.
I understand their tactical calculation. For as long as I can remember, there has been an asymmetry in the economic situations usually bequeathed by the two parties. Conservatives tend to be elected when there has been an economic crisis, and begin with a deficit. Over the years, they bring the budget back into balance, at which point voters feel they can relax again, and so elect a Labour government that sets about blowing away the surplus it inherited until things get so bad that voters turn back to the Tories and the cycle starts again. If the PM feels this is unfair, who can blame him?
Still, unfair or not, the asymmetry exists. A Right-of-Centre party that presides over tax rises and price rises will be more harshly treated than a socialist party that does the same, because it is seen to have betrayed its principles and its supporters.
In his witty improvisation, Johnson praised Peppa Pig World for its excellent schools, superb infrastructure, low crime rates and so on. He is right. Peppa Pig inhabits a kind of pre-lapsarian milieu, in which the worst that can happen is rain – and even that leads to the fun of jumping in puddles. There is no wickedness in Peppa Pig World, no malice. Which is why, I think, it appeals to pre-school children who are just, so to speak, going through their personal Fall – in other words, just becoming capable of moral choices, just learning that they can be naughty. When they watch Peppa Pig, they are looking back over their shoulders at Eden.
But consider. Why would such a world need a Tory government? TS Eliot once wrote of “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” – the socialist delusion down the ages. Peppa Pig World will never experience the sense of crisis, the recognition that tough decisions are needed, that propels Right-of-Centre parties to office.
As we emerge from the epidemic in better order than our neighbours, the sense of immediate crisis has passed – which, paradoxically, presents a moment of danger for the Conservatives. If you doubt me, look again at those headlines.