Carolyn Fairbairn tried to put everyone’s mind at ease. Opening the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry at a hotel next to the O2 arena in London, its director general was more therapist than cheerleader. She was truly sorry she hadn’t managed to drum up better speakers. But we were in the middle of a general election, so she had felt obliged to ask the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to come along and address them.
It wasn’t going to be fun, she admitted. Nor was it likely to be in any way reassuring, as both men had only a tangential grasp of economic and business realities and weren’t about to tell them anything they wanted to hear. But there were breakout areas at the back of the hall: safe spaces where delegates could process their trauma with expert help. And if necessary, get advice on relocating their businesses to elsewhere in the EU. For those unable to move from their seats, there would be nurses patrolling the aisles at regular intervals to hand out industrial-strength Valium. So everyone should just do their best to nurture one another and remember that it would all be over by lunchtime. And breathe.
The health warnings complete, Boris Johnson lumbered on to the stage. “Tiles … tiles … splashback,” he burbled, trying to make himself heard over the crunching of diazepam tablets. Boris shrugged, not bothering to talk in meaningful sentences or even attempting to conceal the fact that he didn’t really give a toss. He didn’t want to be there, any more than anyone wanted him there. Which actually suited him fine. Because recent opinion polls seemed to show that the less effort he was seen to make, the more the public seemed to like him. The postmodern dialectics of populism. Never had there been a better time to be a lazy, pathological liar.
He was going to get Brexit done, he said. This prompted the first overdoses of the morning. Because getting Brexit done was the last thing that was going to happen if the Tories won a majority and the UK left the EU at the end of January. This was gaslighting at its most basic, as not even Johnson believes this any more. “We’vegotafantasticnewdeal,” he slurred. One that he himself had rejected 18 months previously. There would be no no deal at the end of next year, but there also might not be a deal. It was the same old, same old. Lie after lie after lie. An emetic display of contempt.
Halfway through, Boris did vaguely remember this was meant to be tailored to the CBI and not his bog-standard stump speech. So he chucked in a few businessy things – cancelling the reduction in corporation tax that he had claimed would increase revenues in order to save £6bn, reducing national insurance contributions for employers by ensuring businesses would have to lay off staff – before reverting back to slagging off Jeremy Corbyn. “Venezuela,” he said. “That bit’s true,” he added, surprising himself as well as the hall. It’s not often something accurate escapes into one of his speeches. He wouldn’t let it happen again.
After 20 minutes of verbal nihilism, the CBI president, John Allan, stormed the stage and begged Johnson to stop. Boris took no notice and ploughed on regardless. This was all about him. His needs, his time, his ego.
“If you could wind up as soon as you can,” Allan interrupted.
“Ah, there you are, Allan,” Boris blurted, having not even bothered to learn his host’s name. He carried on regardless. Apprentices were good. Especially ones that taught you IT and could be invited on trade missions. An apprentice to whom he could do what he’d like to do to business. As for immigration, only the brightest and the best would be allowed in. Cabbage pickers with PhDs. Johnson smirked when asked about Prince Andrew and left as gracelessly as he had arrived.
Jeremy Corbyn was greeted with mere indifference. Which is to say he went down a storm compared with Johnson. It may be touch and go whether the CBI disliked the probability of a botched Boris Brexit more than the Labour leader’s plans for renationalisation of public services, but at least Corbyn attempted to engage with the things that mattered to them. A soft, customs union and single market Brexit. The need to reskill the workforce. The climate emergency. Inequality of opportunity. They might not agree on the solutions but Corbyn did seem to have his head and heart in the right place. Much more of this and the Labour leader will be confused with a details man.
“OK,” said Fairbairn, as Corbyn left to a smattering of applause from those who weren’t still having their stomachs pumped after Johnson’s horror show. “That’s the aversion therapy training session over. Now go off and have some lunch and then join us for some team bonding with Jo Swinson in the afternoon. Jo’s going to tell you lots of things about cancelling Brexit that you are going to love.” And she did. And they did. The Lib Dems winning at the CBI.
John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.