The tour is coming to an end. The two stars, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will soon have other engagements, depending on the verdict the audience reaches on this one.
Last night they performed before a thousand Conservatives at the Kent Showground, outside Maidstone, in a huge green shed next to the Cattle Marquee.
Hunt, who went second, adopted the manner of a pained but amiable grown up who feels obliged to warn that the party is in danger of getting out of hand.
He has nothing against Conservatives having fun: “Optimism is a great thing and I love Boris for his optimism, but it’s got to be optimism grounded in reality.”
According to Hunt, there is “a big risk if we approach Brexit in a headlong way” of ending up with a general election and Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten.
But all is not lost: “We can choose our own Jeremy!”
As he said this, a Hunt supporter gave a great whoop from just behind the press seats.
The idea of using Jeremy to beat Jeremy did not, however, rouse the audience as a whole to more than polite applause. Many of them were more stirred by the idea of using Johnson to get Brexit done by 31st October.
That was his opening pledge, and it produced a favourable reaction. Soon he was describing how he would do it. He would look after the EU nationals who are living here (a respectable level of applause, for Conservatives are by no means as illiberal as they are painted).
And he would “suspend” the £39 billion we contribute to the EU “in a state of creative ambiguity until such time as we get what we want.”
Not everyone would feel comfortable commending “creative ambiguity” as a key element in their negotiating position. Here, on the other hand, is Jonathan Powell, describing its role in the Northern Ireland peace process:
“The part played by ambiguity in a negotiation is complicated and needs careful handling. In the initial stages, ambiguity is often an essential tool to bridge the gap between irreconcilable positions. The only way we could get over decommissioning at the time of the Good Friday Agreement was to make its terms ambiguous so that each side was able to interpret the Agreement as endorsing their position…constructive ambiguity took the strain.”
That sort of careful justification might be given by Hunt. In Johnson’s hands, creative ambiguity means keeping the other side guessing.
He passed swiftly on to lighter matters, including the ingredients, such as whey, required “to make the Mars Bars in Slough on which our children depend.”
He charged onwards: “Where there’s a will there’s a whey, as I never tire of saying.” This line he has used on an unknown number of previous occasions, but it still produced a decent laugh.
Hunt’s line, that he is an entrepreneur, though he himself asks in an ironic tone whether he has ever told us this before, is somehow less enjoyable.
Hannah Vaughan Jones, the journalist who interviewed each candidate in turn, asked Johnson how he would describe his temperament.
He replied: “I would say eirenic.” A moment’s silence, for many people could not remember what this meant.
Johnson explained that he is “approaching a state of almost glutinous harmony with my fellow Conservatives”.
It is likely that in the ever widening field of Johnson studies, entire books, or PhD theses, or at least entire paragraphs, will one day be devoted to his use of the term “almost glutinous harmony”.
In October 2009, he spoke on Newsnight of the “almost glutinous harmony” between himself and David Cameron at Oxford.
The joke of this is that he and Cameron were not close, yet when it suited them could make a show of closeness. So Johnson is exaggerating in order to show, in a comic way, how bogus the claim is.
And yet it is not totally bogus. There is some sort of affinity between himself and Cameron, and indeed between himself and his fellow Conservatives. The subject eludes definition. We are back to creative ambiguity.
Someone in the audience asked a good question: “How are you going to sort out Tory Remainers who would rather bring down the Government than let us leave with No Deal?”
Johnson replied: “It’s not Remain and Leave any more.”
He added: “I think there’s a real spirit of compromise now in our party.”
Is this true? Nobody knows for sure, or at least nobody can prove the question one way or the other.
Conservatives seemed to be getting on in a perfectly civilised way with each other at the hustings. A group of Johnson supporters lined up to welcome their man, followed by a smaller group of Hunt supporters to welcome their man.
Various drivers waited outside the venue for the Conservatives they had brought to the event. Here was a husband waiting for his wife, and, rather movingly, two parents, neither of them a Conservative voter, waiting for their son, who at the age of 16 has joined the party in order to vote in this leadership election.
These thousand Conservatives did not correspond to the ignorant caricatures sometimes offered in the press of the party’s membership. They took the decision seriously, and were well aware of wider public opinion.
So when Johnson was asked whether as Prime Minister he would call a free vote in Parliament on hunting with dogs, and he replied that he did not think “in all candour” that this is the moment to put hunting “at the top of our standard”, he received solid applause.
Hunt tried in vain to score off his opponent. The Foreign Secretary was amiable, professional and astute, but could not connect with the audience in the way that Johnson did.
Johnson is relaxing into this contest. Because he feels himself to have an unassailable lead, he can dare to play his natural game, mixing serious observations with frivolous ones, in a manner infuriating to some people but attractive to a larger number.