As Mark Wallace pointed out on this site last week, Conservative Party members will soon receive their ballot papers for the leadership election. CCHQ says that these should be received between July 6th and 8th. This means that many of them will on their way back to the returning officer – the Electoral Reform Society is overseeing the vote again – a fortnight from today (July 9). But the poll won’t close until almost a fortnight after that: July 22.
So, as our Exective Editor went on to argue, these arrangements are good for the front runner, and put the later hustings on a strange footing. The South East one takes place on July 11; there is one in Gloucestershire on July 12, one in East Anglia and seperately in Eastern region on July 13 and a final hustings in London on July 17. A significant proportion of the capital’s activists will have voted by then.
This timetable, as Mark said, “raises the incentive for the second-placed finalist to hit early and hit hard”. And Jeremy Hunt knows it. You may think that he is doing himself and the contest no favours by suggesting that Boris Johnson is a coward. None the less, put yourself in his place for a moment. The gambit may well be counter-productive. But Hunt has literally nothing to lose – because all the evidence suggests that he is going to lose anyway. Our last Next Tory Leader survey had him, immediately before the penultimate round of voting at the Parliamentary stage, on 11 per cent to Johnson’s 62 per cent.
And so it comes about that Hunt, like some Premier League footballer, is “here, he’s there, he’s every f******g where”. It’s Friday, and he’s in Worcester, off for his early morning run before helping out at a bakery, visiting a chocolate factory, getting a free haircut and dashing in to Titan Steel Wheels. It’s Saturday, and he’s in Birmingham, cooking his first Balti before speaking at his first hustings. It’s Sunday, and there is no rest for the wicked, or at least for Hunt, because he’s flying off to Scotland.
Later that day, he beams down in Peterhead, meets activists, visits his great-aunt. No, sorry. He’s actually in Aberdeen, boarding a boat, eating fish. It’s hard to keep up, you see. Did he drop in on the Goves? Oh, and the great-aunt’s still there. She must be one of those great-aunts that gets around. Sorry again: that fish supper is in Peterhead, after all. That’s after tea and lemon drizzle cake in Aberdeen. Well, it takes all sorts. What’s this? It’s Monday, and Hunt’s in Bristol, chatting with dock workers and apprenticeships. Is he channelling Rory Stewart? Now he’s changed into George Osborne’s hard hat and high-vis jacket. Stop, stop – please stop.
He won’t. It’s today, and he’s reworking his policy of spending more on defence, as described in his recent ConservativeHome interview. And all the while he’s writing letters, recording videos, sending tweets – issuing challenges, duck and weaving, kicking sand in Johnson’s face. Come on over here, Boris, if you’re hard enough! On the one hand, his opponent isn’t exactly hiding away, because he must undertake all these hustings, has now been interviewed on the BBC – and there will be more.
On the other, Hunt is certainly on to something about TV debates. The ITV one is on July 9. The Sun debate is on July 15. The latter will certainly take place after many members have voted. An earlier Sky debate has been pulled. There is a sense of Johnson running down the clock. At any rate, Hunt’s chances of breaking through don’t rest on policy: the defence spending commitment, the proposed corporation tax cut, the education focus on young people who don’t go the University, lowering of the interest rate on tuition fees. Rather, they rest on Party members weighing up Johnson’s character – and changing their minds.
But there is no sign that the latest rumpus has made any serious impact on the latter’s standing. Many activists understand why neighbours in such circumstances would make a tape recording. But almost none of them have any sympathy with those neighbours running off with it to the Guardian. Above all, there is no complaint from Carrie Symonds.
We suspect that most Party members prize the delivery of Brexit and a Conservative election victory – and see Johnson as better placed to deliver both. On the evidence of polling to date, we agree. No wonder the Guardian and the Left want to take him down.
None the less, Hunt is fighting a feisty campaign – and performed at least as well as Johnson in Birmingham, if not better. His critics can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim first that he’s a pushover and then complain when he swings some punches. True, his Brexit policy swerves the big decision: that Britain under his premiership would definitely leave the EU on October 31. Then again, his opponent’s has not been without its ambiguities, either.