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Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

‘Populist’ has replaced the phrase ‘Alt right’ as the lefty choice of word to insult politicians on the Right. Boris Johnson is often now described as a ‘populist’ politician. It’s meant to put him in the same class as Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban and, of course, Donald Trump.

He is, of course, nothing like them if you actually look at what he believes. As I put it to him at one of the hustings, he’s actually very much on the liberal side of conservative thinking.

This is the man who once flirted with an amnesty for illegal immigrants. This is the man who has an exemplary record of supporting the adoption of pro-gay rights legislation. On that point, it’s always good to remind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that Johnson voted to repeal Section 28 in 2002. Corbyn did not.

Brexit blinkers those who just view Johnson through the ‘populist’ prism. They deliberately ignore the rest of his beliefs in a vain attempt to smear him as some sort of far-right ideologue. My suspicion is that if he goes on to win the leadership, we’ll see a government that is very far from what the Guardian and its ilk likes to imagine.

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Talking of the hustings, I’ve now compered five of them, with number six coming up tomorrow morning in Nottingham.

One of the challenges is to keep things fresh and to introduce new areas of questioning on each occasion. In Manchester on Saturday, I decided to devote my ten minutes with each candidate to Northern Powerhouse issues. Rather hilariously, just before we went on stage I got a text from Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, with a couple of questions for the candidates – well, five actually.

I rather theatrically waved my phone at the 800 strong audience and asked them if I should ask Johnson a question from Mayor Burnham. “YEEEES”, they cried. So I did. The audience then clapped the question, and he then paid tribute to Burnham and agreed with the thrust of the question. Strange times.

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At the end of interviews with the candidates, I have taken to asking them a light-hearted question. The answers  often give people a very different insight into the candidates’ characters, and also demonstrate an ability (or lack thereof) to think quickly on their feet.

In Manchester, I had forgotten to prepare such a question, so I just asked something very simple: which place in the North West that they had visited had left the most memorable impression. OK – not very original and not exactly the most challenging question I have ever asked.

Johnson chose the Midland Hotel in Manchester…and I could almost sense the collective mind of the audience start to boggle. He then explained that, in 1906, Winston Churchill had held a very important meeting there, the details of which now escape me.

It then came to Jeremy Hunt’s turn. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t heard Johnson’s answer, but he too gave the Midland Hotel as his choice. He looked rather perplexed when the audience collapsed into fits of laughter. He then went on to explain that it was where Mr Rolls met Mr Royce. Who knew?

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On Tuesday morning, I got up at 5.30am to fly to Belfast from Heathrow. Apparently, I wasn’t deserving of a place on the private jet which flew the candidates and their entourages there!

Unusually for me, all the travel plans went smoothly, and I arrived at Belfast City Airport on time. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Northern Ireland politics, so I spent some time getting a briefing from someone who does. Always a good idea when you’re keen to avoid causing some sort of diplomatic incident.

I arrived at the venue quite early, and spent some time talking to audience members as they started trickling into the hall. Hunt varied his standard hustings speech rather more than Johnson did – and we were spared another rendition of the McHuntyface joke.

Praise be. I know it’s difficult when there are 16 different hustings to do a different speech at each, but both candidates would be well advised to shake it up for the final eight. If they don’t the media will lose interest.

I had been told by various people in advance of the Belfast hustings that Northern Ireland Conservatives were just like English Tories but about 20 years behind in terms of their social views. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the questions in Belfast were of a better quality and incisiveness than at any of the other hustings so far. And they were generally quite progressive, and not obsessed with issues which only related to Northern Ireland. It was also good to see so many under-30s in the audience.

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The styles of the two candidates are clearly very different. Hunt is never going to match Johnson for rhetorical flourish, but his great asset is his unflappability in his response to hostile questioning. And there’s been some pretty tough questions from each of the audiences.

He sits up, back ramrod straight, then leans into the audience and tries to reassure them. It’s part of the reason David Cameron appointed him Health Secretary. He has a nice, reassuring bedside manner and the audiences have liked it.

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Let me finish by paying tribute to a 16-year-old British Asian lad called Ajay who sent in a question to the Manchester hustings, and which I chose as one of those to ask Johnson.

His question was a challenging one, both to ask and for Johnson to answer. When I called Ajay to ask his question, he stumbled with his words a little. I willed him on.

He explained that he suffered from clinical depression and mental health issues and wanted to know what a Boris Johnson led government would do to help people like him. He used the phrase: “If you are elected…”. Some wag in the audience shouted out: “You mean when…”

That could have easily put Ajay off his stride, but it didn’t – and he completed his question. I really hoped the audience would applaud him, as it must have taken balls of steel to ask that question, especially given his age. The crowd didn’t let me down, and nor did Johnson, who gave a very detailed answer on what he would do to expand mental health services.

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You’ll have noticed that I’ve been scrupulously balanced in this column, and said positive things about both candidates. I’ll save any negative things for the memoirs! Actually, truth be told, that would be a short paragraph. I’ve actually been impressed by how both of them have done so far. I think the whole process has been handled well by both of them.

In addition, let me conclude (again!) by paying tribute to Brandon Lewis and the CCHQ team who have organised these hustings at very short notice. He leads a highly professional team and I can’t speak highly enough of everyone involved. A job well done, but it’s not finished yet.

39 comments for: Iain Dale: The hustings. From Manchester to Belfast – and on to Nottingham.

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