Looking down the menu of Conservative leadership launches is a bit like trying to decide what to go to at the Edinburgh fringe. Should one opt for one of the established names, seen already on the telly so therefore lacking the smack of novelty, or risk being trapped in a cellar with an alternative comedian of whom no one will ever hear?
We decided to split the difference and go to the Matt Hancock launch. Memories of Hancock’s Half Hour imparted the hope that this would be an amusing occasion.
It was held in the Weston Roof Pavilion, on the sixth floor of the Southbank Centre, which consists of more than one enormous concrete building.
All the doors by which we tried to enter this brutalist masterpiece were locked. Notices said it opened at ten, by which time Hancock would be in full flow.
Heavy rain was falling. Security men inside the building offered inaudible instructions through the glass. How tantalising to be baulked of Hancock in this way.
At length a lady came out and showed us to the Artists’ Entrance, where we ascended in the Artists’ Lift. This was more like it.
On entering the Hancock launch, we were handed Belgian waffles, and inside there was much more waffle to come, manufactured in England and not quite so tasty.
“Let’s move forward,” said the slogan on Hancock’s little stage, the sort of sentiment which makes some of us want to stay exactly where we are, or if possible move backwards.
“Good morning,” Hancock said, in the manner of an eager young teacher. “You are the future of Britain.”
While we struggled to work out whether things are that bad, Hancock gestured at the rain outside, through which could be discerned the London Eye and the Palace of Westminister.
“A metaphor,” he said. “Dark clouds over Westminster.”
This too was somehow hard to accept, at least when stated by Hancock.
And sure enough, he at once descried a silver lining: “I’m an optimist about the future…I believe the world is getting better…I love people.”
Not very Tory sentiments. We found ourselves listening to the Conservative Candide, according to whom everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, or will be if Hancock becomes Prime Minister.
“Everyone has something to give,” he declared. “If you look deep inside anyone’s heart…there’s something of value.”
We seemed to remember a line from a Jane Austen novel: “Oh he is black at heart.” But Hancock is no Austen.
He promised he will bring “every ounce of energy and optimism” to the role of Prime Minister. Here at last was something to delight the Tory faithful. The man still thinks in imperial units.
A journalist asked Hancock how he would beat Boris Johnson, and whether there were any skeletons in his cupboard.
“I don’t think there’s anything of great interest in my past,” Hancock said with entrancing candour. But he did not say how he is going to beat Johnson.
A dreadful choice now imposed itself. Dominic Raab was about to perform in the same building. If we went to hear him, we would keep dry.
But Britain was not built by by keeping dry. (This kind of rhetoric is, unfortunately, infectious.) We bicycled through the rain to Carlton House Terrace to hear Jeremy Hunt perform in the Royal Academy of Engineering.
As we entered the building, Raab appeared on a televislon screen with subtitles which said, “Bold and infused with some of that stubborn optimism”. More optimism! Hadn’t Hancock already given us enough?
“There’ll be an announcement,” one of the MPs supporting Hunt said with a smile.
“What sort of an announcement?”
“A positive one,” he replied. “You’ll see.”
A kind Romanian woman poured us a cup of tea. She is keeping out of the Tory leadership race. But she was distressed to have queued for eight hours at a Romanian polling station in Harrow in order to cast her vote in the European elections, only for it to close an hour early, before she could do so.
Hunt’s slogan is “Unite to win”. We waited some time for him to join us. Outside, Big Ben could be seen, still covered in scaffolding, through a gap in the trees in St James’s Park; and nearer at hand, the glorious Corinthian capitals of the pillars on the outside of Carlton House Terrace, netted to stop birds roosting in them.
The interior of the building has been stripped of all mouldings, reduced to the impersonality of a business suite in a hotel on the edge of town.
Amber Rudd arrived. There was warm applause for her, and a susurration of camera shutters.
“Anyone know the wifi code?” a journalist asked. The code was given out, but so quickly it was impossible to take down. This may have been a security measure.
Hunt’s people don’t want to give out the code. The whole occasion felt much more official.
For as Rudd said in her introductory remarks: “This is a moment of profound seriousness.” During the referendum she observed, famously, that Johnson was not the man you would want to drive you home at the end of the evening.
From the start of her speech, we knew who will be driving her home – Jeremy Hunt: “I know him to be a man of decency and integrity.”
Some of us could not help feeling Rudd might be a better driver than either Johnson or Hunt.
Penny Mordaunt was up next. She made the announcement: “My name will be on Jeremy Hunt’s nomination papers today.” There was a sense, as she spoke, of the Senior Service sticking together. Mordaunt was named after a warship and Hunt’s father used to drive one.
On came Hunt. He observed the official decencies: “Let me pay tribute to Theresa May.” What she has done in the Brexit negotiations is “both significant and honourable”.
“A serious moment calls for a serious leader,” he went on. That is how he hopes to defeat Johnson: “choose me…for experience over rhetoric.”
The phalanx of Hunt supporters, themselves serious but not famous men, applauded in a disciplined and determined way. Here was the Establishment in all its stiff and decent glory. Will it be able to make the slightest impression on the wider world?